When Diane Wilson complained of headaches and coughs after an oil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., her doctor treated her for allergies.
When Genieve Long came down with nausea, rashes and a fever, her doctor couldn't provide a diagnosis.
When Ann Jarrell's 6-month-old grandson began wheezing, a doctor sent him home with asthma medication.
All three families live within a few hundred yards of the March 29 oil spill that sent more than 200,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil through Mayflower. Their experiences offer a snapshot of the confusion surrounding the health impacts of the spill, an uncertainty created by limitations in the science, physicians' lack of training in environmental health and a communication gap between local health officials and the people they are meant to serve. Like families who lived near two other large oil spills—the June 2010 spill in Salt Lake City, Utah and the July 2010 spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River—they are still searching for answers.
Because the three families weren't among the 22 households in the North Woods subdivision that state officials deemed to be most affected by the spill, they weren't evacuated or contacted directly by health officials. Instead, they stayed put, enduring foul odors and a host of health problems they believe were caused by the chemicals found in crude oil. Not only were their physicians unable to provide clear answers, but in some cases they also seemed unwilling to consider the spill as a possible culprit.
Long said she had to persuade her doctor to add chemical exposure to her medical history. Jarrell said she provided a printout of the petroleum chemicals detected by air monitoring equipment, but the doctor refused to look at it.
Health experts say it's virtually impossible to prove that a particular symptom was caused by the chemicals released during an oil spill. Respiratory problems, for instance, can be blamed on springtime allergies, and headaches explained by the stress of living through a spill. Some people are also more sensitive than others, so two residents could be exposed to the same level of chemicals, yet only one will show a response.
Howell Foster, director of the Arkansas Poison Control Center, said he has no doubt that Mayflower residents are experiencing real health problems. But "causation is very, very hard to prove…There isn't a smoking gun. It's not that simple."
Some of the tests, such as analyzing benzene levels in urine, are expensive and rarely used by primary care physicians, he said. In addition, most doctors have little training in diagnosing or treating chemical exposures. Physicians who specialize in that field tend to live near industrial hot zones such as the Texas Gulf Coast.
One of the few chemical health experts in Mayflower is Dr. William Mason, a pulmonologist and chief of emergency response at the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), the agency responsible for public health after the spill. Before joining the ADH, Mason worked in private practice for 20 years and treated many people who were exposed to chemicals in the workplace.
Mason said local doctors can call him any time for advice, but he has received only one call so far. Like Foster, Mason said it's difficult to connect health problems with the spill. "You want to consider the entire symptomology, because you may overlook something that's unrelated to the spill. So we trust our physicians…[and] we think they've done a really good job."
Children Still Sick
Long, a 28-year-old college student and a mother of four, lives next to a cove of Lake Conway where the oil eventually collected. Within days of the accident, she said her five-year-old asthmatic son began wheezing and needed a machine to help him breathe at night. Her eight-year-old daughter developed stomach problems.
But when Long asked ExxonMobil—the company responsible for the spill—to help pay for a hotel room, she said her claim was denied because ongoing air monitoring showed that the levels around her house were safe.
"We did not have the funds to move unless we were helped by Exxon," she said. "So we've had to sit here and deal with it."
Long said the children are still experiencing those symptoms, more than three months after the spill occurred.
When InsideClimate News told the health department about Long's experiences, Shirley Louie, the deputy state epidemiologist, said she couldn't comment on a private matter between Long and Exxon. "I don't know what [Long] asked for. We're not in any way, shape or form qualified to answer that."
Since April 2, four days after the spill, the ADH has reported that contaminants in the air were "below levels likely to cause health effects" for the general population.
But as InsideClimate reported last month, some health experts believe the agency's air quality standards for benzene—a known carcinogen—aren't strong enough to protect the public. Those experts were also concerned that the agency didn't issue health warnings for pregnant women and young children, two groups who are considered especially vulnerable to chemical exposure.
Agency spokesman Ed Barham said the staff spent many "long nights and weekends" monitoring air quality and residents' concerns. They've held public meetings, distributed flyers and posted online news releases, he said.