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Worries persist as Health Department sounds all clear
Pam Hulsey is ready to escape an oil spill she claims has made her family sick.
The Santa Rosa Beach family returned to Walton County this week to pack up and say their final goodbyes before heading to North Carolina.
“Brittany spent (a recent) weekend swimming in Destin and came home with a nose bleed. We didn’t think a lot about it at the time,” Hulsey said.
That changed, when her son, James, came home from working all day as a lifeguard on the Fourth of July.
“He was rained on and started having rectal bleeding,” Hulsey said.
She brought her 22-year-old son to the doctor, and he ruled out oil exposure and suggested hemorrhoids as a possible cause of the bleeding. But Hulsey couldn’t believe the diagnosis given the "significant amount' of blood her son lost.
Hulsey also began to experience respiratory problems.
“We left for a long weekend … and my sinuses cleared. We came back; it started again,” Hulsey said. “The biggest thing is James; we just don’t know.
“I was so scared.”
Those fears are unwarranted, according to the Walton County Health Department.
“At this time, there are no indications of any health risks to Floridians due to the Deepwater Horizon incident,” said Laura Brazell, a program specialist with the local health department.
But Hulsey is not alone in her worries about health impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Wynn Parks, a consultant coal exploration geologist and writer, also recounts a strange incident, which he blames on oil exposure. He said he was standing on his balcony, which faces the Gulf of Mexico, when “I felt a warm drop in my eye, then it burnt for a few minutes.”
“When I looked in the mirror my eye was all bloody looking,” the Blue Mountain Beach resident said, pulling at the corner of his eye. “My eye looked like Christopher Lee when he was playing Dracula."
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, “for most people, occasional brief contact with a small amount of oil, while not recommended, will do no harm.”
But John Marsh, office manager for Santa Rosa Beach’s Palmetto Family Healthcare, said he became “suspicious” when his office started seeing an increase in “worrisome” cases — ear infections, cold-like flu symptoms cases and unusual cases of rashes, burning lungs, “festering sores and even cases of spontaneous bleeding.”
“I am not the doctor, but many of the patients tell me their problems while they wait,” Marsh said.
Marsh and his sister, who also works at the clinic as a nurse, are in the process of relocating because of the health concerns.
"In a way I feel I am abandoning the area, but…" Marsh said.
The clinic charges a flat rate for visits and accepts only cash or credit card, so the majority of the patients are workers who for one reason or another do not have insurance, Marsh said. The clinic conducted physicals for 685 BP-contracted cleanup crew workers. He said “some came back as patients, but with no particular symptoms.”
One former BP-contracted worker, who cleaned up tar balls on South Walton beaches in July, shared his worries with The Sun.
"I have a cough and a lot of congestion in my lungs that just won't come up," Charles Jacobs said. "I really don't know what caused it."
"A lot of us had it," the 42-year-old Bristol, Fla., native said. "It started when we got down there on the water."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention utilizes several systems for tracking and sharing information on health-related trends.
One system in use in Florida is the Electronic Surveillance System for Early Notification of Community-Based Epidemics (ESSENCE). It tracks reported oil spill data collected from emergency rooms and Florida Poison Information Control Network (FPICN).
FPICN data for the week of July 25-31 indicates 12 of 16 oil-symptom-callers reported “experiencing symptoms possibly related to their exposure, including skin irritation or pain, skin redness, rash, itching, bleeding, swelling, nausea, drowsiness, loss of energy, headache, throat irritation, shortness of breath, cough/choke, and chest pain.”
CDC also utilizes Biosense for a quick analysis of health surveillance data.
The program detected an increase in the number of visits for skin rash in a healthcare facility in Florida on May 17, but investigation “indicated that the rashes were unrelated to the oil spill.” Three days later the system detected an increase in visits for asthma in a healthcare facility in Mississippi. The following week from May 27- June 5 “BioSense surveillance system experienced hardware malfunctions and was unable to report from May 28 to June 7.” No detected oil-related trends were listed before or since.
But those reports can’t convince Hulsey, who is ready to walk away.
After deciding to move, Hulsey said she will lose scholarships and in-state tuition for her two children entering college. She contacted BP to see about compensation for the “difference in the cost of tuition, not even the medical expenses, and they said, ‘If you don’t have a loss of income you haven’t got a claim.’ ”
“We don’t get into the water and we don’t eat the fish anymore,” Hulsey said while wrapping up a garage sale. “No amount of free tuition and schooling is worth your health.”