Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

National news

April 11, 2014

4 years after spill, questions on long-term health

CHALMETTE, La. (AP) — When a BP oil well began gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, fisherman George Barisich used his boat to help clean up the millions of gallons that spewed in what would become the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.

Like so many Gulf Coast residents who pitched in after the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Barisich was motivated by a desire to help and a need to make money — the oil had destroyed his livelihood.

Today he regrets that decision, and worries his life has been permanently altered. Barisich, 58, says respiratory problems he developed during the cleanup turned into pneumonia and that his health has never been the same.

"After that, I found out that I couldn't run. I couldn't exert past a walk," he said. His doctor declined to comment.

Barisich is among thousands considering claims under a medical settlement BP reached with cleanup workers and coastal residents. The settlement, which could benefit an estimated 200,000 people, received final approval in February from a federal court. It establishes set amounts of money — up to $60,700 in some cases — to cover costs of various ailments for those who can document that they worked the spill and developed related illnesses, such as respiratory problems and skin conditions.

It also provides for regular physical examinations every three years for up to 21 years, and it reserves a worker's right to sue BP over conditions that develop down the road, if the worker believes he or she can prove a connection to the spill.

Some 33,000 people, including Barisich, are participating in a massive federal study that aims to determine any short or possible long-term health effects related to the spill.

"We know from ... research that's been done on other oil spills, that people one to two years after ... had respiratory symptoms and changes in their lung function, and then after a couple of years people start to return to normal," said Dr. Dale Sandler, who heads the study overseen by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

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