GC-HARMS update September 2013

GC-HARMS update September 2013

The “Gulf Coast Health Alliance: Health Risks Related to the Macondo Spill” (GC-HARMS) research project seeks to characterize health impacts and community resiliency factors related to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

a collaborative response to characterizing environmental health risks and building community resiliency after the Deep Water Horizon disaster in the northern Gulf of Mexico

The “Gulf Coast Health Alliance: Health Risks Related to the Macondo Spill” (GC-HARMS) research project seeks to characterize health impacts and community resiliency factors related to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The seafood industry is critical to the local economy of the Gulf and the infusion of oil disrupted seasonal fishing, and may have damaged the estuarial food web, while exposing consumers of local seafood to potentially harmful compounds associated with crude oil.  These diverse communities – Native American (United Houma Nation, Louisiana), Vietnamese-American fisher-folk (Gulfport, Mississippi), African-American (Biloxi, Mississippi), traditional Louisiana Cajuns and racially-ethnically diverse fishermen in coastal Alabama  – have been culturally, economically and, in some cases, linguistically marginalized, adversely affecting their collective resiliency in the wake of the disaster.  This is complicated by the ongoing impacts of land loss, sea level rise, and a decade’s worth of unusually severe hurricane activity. This region’s cumulative burden of stress and risk thus looms heavy with a host of challenges moving forward.  

GC-HARMS is a network of community and university partners focused on the health and resiliency impacts of the 2010 Macondo oil spill.  

The focus of GC-HARMS evolved in response to community identified issues and concerns about the possible health, ecosystem and economic implications of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent oil spill.  The GC-HARMS project utilizes a Community-Based Participatory Research(CBPR) approach. The communities involved in the study drive the focus and are critical to the execution of the work as they actively participate in the entire process. Community organizations function as outreach, education and communication channels for their regions, organizing Fishermen’s Forums, arranging sampling expeditions with local fishing crews and designing culturally fluent outreach activities to communicate news, findings and implications of the project to members of their own communities.  Community organizations communicate frequently by telephone or internet with researchers, and the entire group meets yearly to critique and improve the process.

Community-based organizations involved in the project include: 

Louisiana Environmental Action Network (Baton Rouge, LA)

United Houma Nation (Houma LA)

Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (Thibodaux LA)

Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese-American Fisherfolk & Families (Gulfport / Biloxi MS)

Center for Environmental & Economic Justice (Biloxi MA)

Alabama Fishers Cooperative (Coden / Bayou la Batre AL)  

GC-HARMS collaborating researchers are based at:

University of Texas Medical Branch

Louisiana State University

Texas A&M University

University of Pennsylvania

The Louisiana  Environmental Action Network (Baton Rouge LA) in conjunction with community-based environmental scientist, Wilma Subra, developed seafood sampling training protocols for the project, and delivers ongoing training workshops for fishermen interested in taking scientifically credible samples.  LEAN also serves as a regional clearinghouse for project information through its website.

The overarching purpose of GC-HARMS is to: “characterize and communicate the human health risks of exposure to potentially hazardous food-borne petrogenic Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH).”   

Project goals include assessing PAH contamination of Gulf seafood consumed and sold by subsistence fishing communities, gauging the relative toxicity of seafood contaminated by oil that was not burned (petrogenic), and evaluating it’s exposures and health outcomes in the human population.   

Petrogenic : hydrocarbon compounds associated with petroleum, “petro” = petroleum. “Petrogenic” = coming from (or components of) petroleum


(L to R: Barbara Robbins, Seafood Worker / Board Member and Co-Founder: Alabama Fisheries Cooperative; John Sullivan, UTMB / GC-HARMS CODC staff; Wilma Subra, GC-HARMS Consortium Steering Committee Community Liaison, Training Coordinator / Regional Scientific Advisor with Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN); Zack Carter, Organizer: Alabama Fisheries Cooperative / GC-HARMS Community Hub Coordinator).

Prior to the official kick off and actual funding of the GC-HARMS project, scientists from UTMB, fishermen from the Alabama Fisheries Cooperative, members of South Bay Communities Alliance and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network participated in a sampling training to test the practicality of the protocols and empower community fishermen to actively participate in the process.   Wilma Subra (LEAN) developed the project sampling protocols – in accord with EPA standards – and personally instructed and supervised the sampling crew on its pilot run in Mobile Bay.  Shrimp samples were collected, and a subsequent crabbing expedition that same day provided samples of blue crab.  These samples were prepared for shipping, frozen solid and sent off for laboratory analysis the next morning.  When lab results came back, these data were presented to the community, and the groups involved agreed that the on-board sampling protocols worked smoothly and were adaptable to various site-specific situations throughout the tri-state area targeted for sampling.

In response to preliminary results from that “shakedown cruise,” Captain Sidney Schwartz, life-long Alabama shrimper, captain of the sampling vessel and a co-founder of the Alabama Fisheries Cooperative, said:

“I am happy that the shrimp sample Dr. Subra analyzed from my boat showed the hydrocarbons to be negligible — nearly 30 times lower than the FDA’s level of concern, even below the level of concern for children and pregnant women established by the environmental group National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). But we need more testing.” 

Since GC-HARMS officially began in fall 2011, project partners have developed a health and resiliency survey instrument and human subject sampling protocols that successfully passed a review to ensure protection for all those who participate (Institutional Review Board scrutiny), and collaborated with project staff from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in conducting a series of public forums for area fishermen, their families and the general public.  These forums covered the entire tri-state coast including: Houma, Buras, Los Islenos Center in St. Bernard Parish, and Lafitte (all in Louisiana), Gulfport and Biloxi (Mississippi), and Coden / Bayou La Batre (Alabama).


The above map is for illustrative purposes only.

Community fishermen  received training in using scientific sampling protocols from the premiere community-based environmental health scientist on the Northern Gulf Coast, Wilma Subra, in close collaboration with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. As of, 6/01/2013, regional fishermen have collected approximately 3,000 samples from 153 discrete sampling sites comprising both commercial and subsistence species including: brown and white shrimp, blue crab, oysters, speckled trout, flounder, sheepshead, red fish (near coastal / inside waters), and red snapper, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel (offshore / deeper water).


Oyster, shrimp and crab representative of sample types collected for GC-HARMS


These samples are delivered to UTMB and analyzed – using a Gas Chromatograph / Mass Spectrometer (GC-MS) analytic process to measure quantitiesof approximately 42 different compounds in oil that was not burned (ie. petrogenic PAHs) in sample tissues. GC-HARMS hopes to address the fact that little research has been done regarding the long-term health impacts of exposure to petrogenic PAHs.

PAH compounds detected in the samples are compared with a known, similarly structured toxic substance for which toxic properties have already been characterized. This enables us to establish toxicity standards for the PAHs.

These activities are focused on characterizing seafood risk and establishing reasonable seafood consumption guidelines.

All community hubs recently met with project Community Outreach & Dissemination (CODC) staff to discuss preliminary results of the GC-MS analysis for their communities, and brainstorm methods of communicating seafood consumption guidelines in clear and understandable language for their communities and others impacted by the spill.  


CODC Staff, LEAN Technical Advisor and Community Hub Organizers meet to discuss GC-HARMS process

Recently, community personnel at human subject sampling hubs successfully completed training in “Protection of Human Research Subjects” and will work directly with university researchers in recruiting subjects for blood and urine sampling and administering personal survey questionnaires.  This area of  the GC-HARMS project will explore the correlation between PAHs found in the seafood and PAHs found in the blood of consumers of that seafood. Blood  and urine samples will also be analyzed for stress hormones to attempt to evaluate the resilience of the study communities.

During the last two years of the project (2014-16), community hubs will directly participate in data analysis and interpretation, while compiling and disseminating multi-media platform materials chronicling shared experiences incorporating the scope and range of feelings, views and perceptions represented in this widely diverse group.

Stay tuned as more updates and results will be distributed as they are produced by the GC-HARMS community.

Have a question about GC-HARMS? Send us an email, we’d be happy to hear from you.

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Related links:

 Video showing GC-HARMS at work

University of Texas, Medical Branch announcement and profile of GC-HARMS study. 

National Institute of Health Sciences project description for GC-HARMS

  • LEAN
  • UTMB
  • bp oil spill
  • human health
  • seafood safety
  • wilma subra
  • riverkeeper
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