“We lived in a house about 20 yards away from an oil well. Another Texaco oil well was upstream from where we got our drinking water, and the water was usually oily with a yellowish foam. I had 11 children. I lost Pedro when he was 19. He had three cancerous tumors: in his lungs, liver, and his leg.” – Woman from town of Sacha, Orellana, Ecuador.
“It started with a little sore on my toe, which grew a bit larger. The water near my house, where I washed clothes, was full of crude and the sore grew bigger, as if the flesh were rotting.
It didn’t hurt, but I couldn’t stand its stink. I had a fever and chills.” – Woman whose leg was surgically excised due to cancer.
“The girl is 15, she’s very sick. She was born that way, not moving with soft bones. The doctors were never able to tell me what was wrong with her. Now she can sit up, crawl, pull herself along the floor, turn over.
She says “mama”, “papa”, and cries when she’s hungry or thirsty….I have to feed her by hand.” – Mother whose daughter has birth defects.
In a nutshell, oil spills may occur all around us, have potential to contaminate soils, sediment and water (both surface and groundwaters) and air. Subsequently, spill oils have significant negative impacts on the residents of the affected areas either by direct or indirect way depending on the type of contact with the oil spill. Prevailing weather conditions will play key role in influencing the physical characteristics and behavior of spilled oil at the site.
Mental health in cleanup workers and residents who exposed to oil is significantly affected. Studies conducted after massive oil spills (such as Exxon Valdez accident, Sea Express and Prestige spills) revealed that there is high prevalence of anxiety disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, psychological stress in oil-exposed population. Individuals living closer to the spill sites showed increased frequency of psychopathological symptoms like anxiety, hostility, and somatization, with lower perception of physical health and functional capacity (Palinkas et al., 1993). After the Prestige oil spill, though there were no general effects in the preschool children, but primary school aged children showed higher hostility to others after oil spill, suggesting that the ‘problem of social adjustment’ was clearly appearing in the oil-exposed individuals (Perez-Pereira et al., 2012). The academic scores in adolescent group were dramatically dropped after Prestige oil spill. Higher risks of stress and depression, but no signs of suicidal impulse were observed in the residents exposed to Hebei Sprit spill.
However, the scenarios were different in a larger group of residents of coastal communities at Hebei Spirit spill, where people showed wide array of mental disorders including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, which is attributed to their exposure level and/or proximity to the spill site. It has also been found that mental health effects, especially anxiety and depression were higher in residents living closer to heavy and moderately oil-soaked areas than in residents from lightly oil-soaked areas. Also, increased levels of depression have been observed in children living closest distance to contaminated coastline compared to children living farthest distance. In order to know the impact of pollution effect on mental health in human, a factor or scale has been introduced called ‘burden of disease’ (BOD) (Kim et al., 2013b), which helps to measure the health damage and useful for the assessment of compensation cost. Data analysis in contaminated sites revels that BOD remains for 1 year for the people exposed to oil and residing near contaminated coastal areas. However, BOD is known to be affected by several parameters, such as proximity to the spill site, participation in the cleanup activities, posttraumatic stress disorder, asthma etc. After Deepwater Horizon oil spill also, oil-exposed individuals were found to show increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress.
Especially, the risk was higher in individuals with low income, low social support, and high levels of nonorganizational religiosity. In Gulf Coast, more than one-third children exposed to oil experienced either mental health distress or physical symptoms. Economic problems are the additional contributors to the mental health disorders in oil exposed individuals. Worse scores of anxieties, confusion, depression, fatigue, total mood disturbance scales, less resilience were observed in people with spill-related income loss than those with stable income. A questionnaire was conducted in the Gulf Coast area after an oil spill, which revealed that though emotional and psychological symptoms were declining and more individuals were started to work, families were still experiencing severe chronic stressors and disruption. Such metal disorders in the family is attributed to job loss and changes in the economic conditions. Thus, there is abundant evidence to establish the relationship between oil spills and mental health effects in exposed individuals.