The Psychological Toll of the Oil Spill

Marc Siegel in Slate:

The psychological impact of Louisiana’s newest disaster is likely to dwarf the impact of the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. A 1993 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatryexamined 599 people in 13 surrounding Alaskan communities and found an incidence of generalized anxiety in 20 percent (3.6 times greater than those who weren’t exposed) and PTSD in 9 percent (2.9 times greater than those who weren’t exposed). A longer-term sociological study on Exxon-Valdez published in theAmerican Fisheries Society Symposium in 1996 found an elevated stress level in the Alaskan communities affected for almost four years afterward.

Without an organized, communitywide intervention strategy to deal with the stress, it took several years for the area to recover. By many estimates, it still hasn’t. Most affected were the surrounding communities that relied on commercial fishing, including Valdez and Cordova. According to research conducted by environmental sociologist J. Steven Picou and others, divorces and suicides increased, as well as depression and anxiety (20 percent of fishermen suffered from severe anxiety and 40 percent from severe depression), and litigation against Exxon for damages to the natives and fishermen continued on for years, casting a continuing shroud over the entire region. Herring fishing still hasn’t returned to Cordova. The average fisherman has lost a significant percentage of his income since the spill. We can expect the same effects now with the 2010 spill, only on a much larger scale. Both the ’89 spill and the current disaster affected poor areas of the country, which impedes recovery.

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