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Twitter May Be Used To Track Lingering Health Problems In The Gulf Of Mexico

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Striped dolphins observed in emulsified oil in 2010

A group of scientists from states bordering the Gulf of Mexico met in St. Petersburg Wednesday to figure out ways to deal with health problems coming from red tide and oil spills in the Gulf.

They're with the Joint Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, which was formed a year ago at USF St. Petersburg. Scientists have been looking at the aftereffects of the BP oil spill since 2010, and they're just now beginning to decipher its consequences. Several findings surfacing at the forum included the popular game fish, mahi mahi - found in the slick that couldn't swim.

And dolphins tracked in Barataria Bay, Louisiana - which was hit hard by the spill - suffered lung lesions and miscarriage rates three times that of dolphins found elsewhere in the Gulf.

Dolphins are considered apex predators - like humans, at the top of the food chain - so they could model possible impacts on human health.

So scientists are trying to coordinate various state and local programs to build up a database on the effects among people.

"The strategy was what can we collect over time, across all these disciplines, that would form a database using this health observing system that might be able to anwer questions in the future," said Charles "Chuck" Wilson, chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which was funded by BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

And Wilson says they're considering one unusual tracking method.

"The (federal Centers for Disease Control) can track flu outbreaks around the country by monitoring Twitter just for the word 'flu',"  he said. "And they could say, well it looks like we have an outbreak, let's send our workers over there to try to track it down. It happens on Twitter before it shows up in the hospitals and the doctor's offices."

"What's the frequency of gastrointestinal distress being reported at doctor's offices, emergency rooms," he said. "And if you could track that over time, you could identify a hot spot where there may be a problem--where you could mobilize a response group faster than waiting for the public health doctors' reports to be assimilated."

Wilson also said scientists found the dispersants used to keep the BP spill from floating to the surface and fouling beaches acted like an aerosol. 

That means masks used by cleanup workers couldn't filter out petroleum byproducts. The lingering health effects from this are not fully known.


Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.