Proof That Children Continue To Suffer Long After Disasters Strike

research confirms that disaster affects children years laterA recent study in Environmental Hazards shows that the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill disaster affects children years later, both physically and mentally.

In news you’d think would be a given, but is still sad and shocking when research confirms, children exposed to oil spills in their regions suffer from both physical and mental adversity.

Research from the National Center For Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute found that children living on the Gulf Coast of the United States and who were exposed to the oil spill had a significantly  higher likelihood of experiencing mental or physical health problems than when compared to children who were not. The exposure could have been either through direct physical contact with oil or indirectly through economic losses they or their family suffered.

The study was led by Jaishree Beedasy from the NCDP and looked at the effects of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the subsequent oil spill that followed in 2010. The spill would become the largest marine oil spill in history. After being capped 87 days after the April 20 explosion, it was estimated that 4 million barrels of oil had poured into the Gulf of Mexico–destroying ecosystems, contaminating shorelines and destroying fishing and tourism industries.

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In 2014, the researchers interviewed 720 parents and caregivers who lived in Louisiana communities and who were highly impacted by the oil spill. They looked at data that gave information about specific oil contact, economic impact of households and health statuses of both children and parents. Three of five parents involved in the surveys reported that their child had experienced some sort of physical health repercussion and almost a third reported their children suffered from mental health issues after the spill.

Beedasy says this confirms that oil spill effects on children’s health seem to last years and years after the actual disaster, and efforts to combat both physical and mental health damage need to be focused.

Of course, natural disasters will strike wherever they choose, and though they’re not targeted, they tend to disproportionately harm vulnerable populations like those with low income or people of color. Children are a vulnerable population as well, if for no other reason but that they are still developing and rely on the adults in their life for just about everything.

While oil spills are not typically the type of natural disaster the effects on children are studied, Beedasy says the potential for harmful effects to children exists. When children have direct exposure to oil, dispersants or burned oil, they can have trouble breathing, dizziness, eye irritation and more. When their parent loses a job due to a spill, their lives are interrupted in significant ways, and that’s exacerbated if there are compounded heath problems.

The bulk of the physical problems reported were respiratory, vision, skin, headaches and unusual bleeding. Thirty percent of the parents interviewed said that their children were depressed, nervous, anxious, slept poorly and had problems getting along with other children. The physical health problems were nearly 5 times more common in children who were directly exposed to the oil, and in children who had parents who were exposed to oil smell. In homes where the indirect exposure was through loss of job and/or income, the children were three times as likely to have health problems than compared to those families who didn’t have exposure. The physical effects seemed less likely in homes where the parent was white and had a college degree or where the household income was more than $70,000 a year, giving substantiation to the concern for more vulnerable groups of children.

Similar results were found regarding the children’s mental health as well.

Of course, researchers understand that study results could be affected by limitations like parent recall, but the results give a strong indication that children exposed to the Deepwater Horizon spill suffered more adverse mental and physical health effects.

Because this likely is often overlooked when looking at natural disaster after-effects, Beedasy and colleagues with the NCDP ran a program called SHOREline for children who were affected by Gulf Coast disasters. She said they’re helpful to give children a sense of empowerment in recovering from a disaster.

Related: How to Talk to Children about Natural Disasters

Still, she believes the findings highlight the importance for communities, particularly vulnerable populations, to have access to social services, healthcare, education and job opportunities before and after a natural disaster to help mitigate damage and enhance their recovery and resiliency. The fact that many in this situation live in high-risk areas for other natural disasters like hurricane or flood damage makes this education and taking care of people even more important.

We like to say that children are resilient, and for the most part, they are. But at what cost? What can we do to prevent the need for their resiliency in the first place?


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