Deepwater Horizon oil spill exposures and neurobehavioral function in GuLF study participants

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The 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) disaster exposed tens of thousands of oil spill response and cleanup (OSRC) workers to hydrocarbons and other hazardous chemicals. Some hydrocarbons, such as toluene and hexane, have been found to have acute adverse effects on the central nervous system in occupational settings. However, no studies have examined the association between oil spill exposures and neurobehavioral function.


We used data from the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study, a cohort of adults who worked on the DWH response and cleanup. Total hydrocarbon (THC) exposure attributed to oil spill cleanup work was estimated from a job-exposure matrix linking air measurement data to detailed cleanup work histories. Participants were also categorized into 6 job categories, or OSRC classes, based on their activity with the highest exposure. Neurobehavioral performance was assessed at a clinical exam 4–6 years after the spill. We used multivariable linear regression to evaluate relationships of ordinal THC levels and OSRC classes with 16 neurobehavioral outcomes.


We found limited evidence of associations between THC levels or OSRC classes and decreased neurobehavioral function, including attention, memory, and executive function. Workers exposed to ≥3 ppm THC scored significantly worse (difference1.0–2.9ppm = -0.39, 95% confidence interval (CI) = -0.74, −0.04) than workers exposed to <0.30 ppm THC for the digit span forward count test. There was also a possible threshold effect above 1 ppm THC for symbol digit test total errors (difference1.0–2.9ppm = −0.56 (95% CI = −1.13, −0.003), difference≥3.0ppm = −0.55 (95% CI = −1.20, 0.10)). Associations appeared to be stronger in men than in women. A summary latency measure suggested an association between more highly exposed jobs (especially support of operations workers) and decreased neurobehavioral function.


OSRC-related exposures were associated with modest decreases in neurobehavioral function, especially attention, memory, and executive function.