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Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Jun;119(6):838-43. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1002915. Epub 2011 Feb 17.

The early psychological impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Florida and Alabama communities.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, School of Medicine, University of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.



Although public concern has focused on the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the public health impact on a broad range of coastal communities is minimally known.


We sought to determine the acute level of distress (depression, anxiety), mechanisms of adjustment (coping, resilience), and perceived risk in a community indirectly impacted by the oil spill and to identify the extent to which economic loss may explain these factors.


Using a community-based participatory model, we performed standardized assessments of psychological distress (mood, anxiety), coping, resilience, neurocognition, and perceived risk on residents of fishing communities who were indirectly impacted (n = 71, Franklin County, Florida) or directly exposed (n = 23, Baldwin County, Alabama) to coastal oil. We also compared findings for participants who reported income stability (n = 47) versus spill-related income loss (n = 47).


We found no significant differences between community groups in terms of psychological distress, adjustment, neurocognition, or environmental worry. Residents of both communities displayed clinically significant depression and anxiety. Relative to those with stable incomes, participants with spill-related income loss had significantly worse scores on tension/anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, and total mood disturbance scales; had higher rates of depression; were less resilient; and were more likely to use behavioral disengagement as a coping strategy.


Current estimates of human health impacts associated with the oil spill may underestimate the psychological impact in Gulf Coast communities that did not experience direct exposure to oil. Income loss after the spill may have a greater psychological health impact than the presence of oil on the immediately adjacent shoreline.

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