On April 20, 2010, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform triggered what would become the largest offshore oil spill in history. Before the well was finally shut 87 days later, on July 15, an estimated 4 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. This damaged ecosystems polluted the coastline and strangled the fishing and tourism industries. It also turned out that the natural disaster was harmful to the mental and physical health of children in the area. The study publishes Environmental Hazards.

Jashri Bidasi of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University Earth Institute conducted a study. It showed that children in the Gulf of Mexico who were exposed to oil spills — either directly, through physical contact with oil, or indirectly through economic losses — had a significantly higher likelihood of physical and mental health problems compared to children who were not exposed. In a survey in 2014, three out of five parents reported that their child had physical health symptoms, and nearly one third reported that their child had mental health problems after the oil spill. Researchers hope their findings can serve as the basis for future disaster recovery plans.

The results also show that the effects of the oil spill on children’s health are likely to persist years after the disaster, the scientist said.

Although natural disasters are not discriminatory, they disproportionately damage vulnerable groups such as colored people and lower-income people. Children are another vulnerable group because their coping abilities and cognitive skills are still developing. They also depend on guardians for their medical, social, and educational needs. More evidence suggests that disasters have serious and long-term effects on children’s health. However, very few studies have evaluated the effects of oil spills on children.

Oil spills can affect children in different ways. A child may come into direct contact with oil by touching it, breathing it in, or swallowing it. Direct exposure to oil, dispersants, and burned oil can cause itchy eyes, breathing problems, headache, dizziness, rash, and blisters, among other problems. Children may also suffer secondary effects if the parent loses their jobs, breaks the daily routine, or if other family members experience anxiety or health problems.

To find out how an oil spill can affect children in the area, in 2014, researchers interviewed 720 parents and guardians who lived in Louisiana communities that were heavily affected by the oil spill. They collected information, for example, whether the child or the parent was in contact with the oil, whether it was economically affected by the household, as well as the health status of the child and the parent.

In an interview, 60% of parents reported that their child had physical health problems — respiratory symptoms, vision problems, skin problems, headaches, and unusual bleeding — some time after the oil spill. 30% of parents said their child had mental health problems – feelings of depression or sadness, nervousness or fear, trouble sleeping or problems with other children.

The study showed that physical health problems were 4.5 times more common in children who were directly exposed to oil and in children whose parents were exposed to an oil smell. Children with indirect exposure to oil through their parents are also more likely to experience physical health problems. And those who live in households that reported a loss of income or work as a result of the oil spill were almost three times more likely to have physical health problems than children whose families did not have such problems.

The study found similar relationships regarding children’s mental health. Children who were directly exposed to oil were 4.5 times more likely to have mental health problems. These effects were also three times more common in children whose parents were exposed to the smell of oil, or whose parents lost their income or work as a result of the spill.

To help with recovery, Bidasi and her colleagues at the National Disaster Preparedness Center had previously organized a program called SHOREline for young people who were affected by natural disasters along the Gulf of Mexico. SHOREline empowered youth and taught them disaster preparedness skills so they can help themselves, their families, communities, and youth in other communities recover from the losses and disruptions caused by extreme events.