far-reaching and pronounced, leading many to describe the situation in the Gulf of Mexico as an oil disaster rather than an oil spill.
From the leak’s origin, to the amount of oil released into the environment, to the duration and ongoing nature of the spill, the Gulf oil spill has presented many unique challenges. The clean-up efforts have been the most demanding on-water response in U.S. history, involving the use of more than 1 million gallons of oil spill dispersants (Judson et al., 2010) and the deployment of thousands of skimming vessels (Deepwater Horizon Response, 2010), including local boat operators who assist with containment and response activities using their “vessels of opportunity.” Many on- and offshore commercial workers, clean-up workers, and volunteers have subjected themselves to numerous physical hazards (such as chemical exposures, heat stress, and injury) through response activities involving chemical dispersants, booms, and skimmers. Long work days and weeks are common as workers and volunteers combat waves and plumes of oil that continue to threaten their communities, livelihoods, and ways of life.
In addition to the physical stressors, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster has disrupted delicate social, economic, and psychological balances in communities across the Gulf region. Local fishermen and -women in the region are grappling with possibly permanent disruptions to their long-standing livelihoods. Fears associated with contaminated beaches and food continue to dissuade tourists from visiting an area still recovering from the devastation of hurricanes such as Katrina, Rita, and Gustav. Communities question the safety of their most vulnerable populations and worry about the effects that the Gulf oil disaster will have on their immediate and long-term health. The resulting uncertainty about physical, social, and economic health has profound implications for the psychological well-being of individuals in affected communities.
Despite information available through studies of past oil spills and other disaster responses, uncertainty continues to mount in the absence of reliable and trustworthy information about the hazards posed by the Gulf oil spill and its related clean-up activities. A number of federal, state, academic, private-industry, and community efforts are already under way to help generate data that can answer some of the most pressing questions. However, more information is needed to best protect the health of affected populations in the contexts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and future public health disasters.