Researchers Evaluate Changes in Perceived Health After Industrial Accident

A study conducted of residents living near BP's Texas City refinery, the site of an explosion that killed 15 people in 2005, suffered a perceived decline in mental and physical health following the blast.

According to Kristen Peek, the study's primary author and associate professor in the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston' Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health, little research has been conducted on changes in perceived health after an industrial accident. Using data from an ongoing health survey in Texas City, perceived health changes were examined after the refinery explosion.

The results of this study suggest that an industrial accident has a potentially important influence on both the perceived mental and perceived physical health of individuals. Although most of the respondents in the surrounding area were not directly affected by the accident, they still experienced declines in perceived mental and physical health, Peek said.

Peek says it is rare in public health research to be able to examine the impact of acute events on health with comparable data collected both before and after an event. In this study, however, UTMB researchers were able to use pre-accident and post-accident data to provide insight into the public health consequences of the deadly refinery accident in Texas City.

The researchers had been conducting a population-based survey on stress and health of 550 Texas City residents since July 2004. After the explosion, investigators attempted to resurvey the respondents from whom they had already collected data. From May to August 2005, researchers successfully re-interviewed 315 of those 550 respondents.

The sample of respondents was derived from 16 randomly selected neighborhoods located within a 12-mile square area that borders the petrochemical complex. The study was designed so that at any time the sample would be representative of the entire city.

Participating residents were interviewed in their homes. The survey measured demographic, behavioral, social and health indicators. Follow-up contact included both face-to-face and telephone interviews.

The mean changes in perceived mental and physical health before the accident, during the accident and after the accident were compared. Significant declines in both perceived mental and physical health were observed for the residents who were interviewed.

Analysis showed that residents of middle age, those with a lower education level or those who reported damage in their neighborhoods were associated with decreases in perceived mental health.

Residents with lower education levels, those who actually felt the impact of the explosion or who were closer to the explosion site at the time of the explosion were associated with decreases in perceived physical health.

These results indicate that both before the accident and during the accident variables such as education level and explosion impact are associated with decreases in perceived physical and mental health.

Previous disaster research has primarily focused on natural disasters and provided information on post-disaster health only, said Peek. UTMB researchers had the advantage of pre-event and post-event data to analyze, and the data allowed them to examine pre-accident, within-accident and post-accident variables that were associated with perceived health declines.

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