Boating, fishing, and hanging out at the beach were important activities that teens couldn’t access after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Credit: File Photo.

By Brandi Gilbert

Implications for Public Health

Toxic spills may disrupt young people’s lives in many different ways. Youth should be engaged in the disaster recovery process.

When the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill closed beaches along the U.S. Gulf Coast, one teen in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, described the closures—which disrupted residents’ deep cultural ties to the water—as a profound loss, saying “it took part of your life out.” This degradation of such a treasured recreation outlet is just one of the many ways that an environmental disaster can impact teens. Even in the face of the largest marine oil spill in history, though, the perspectives of youth were commonly overlooked as adults tried to protect young people and address their own concerns about the economic, health, and environmental impacts of the disaster.

These perspectives were significant, as was evidenced in the in-depth interviews that I conducted with young people between the ages of 12 and 17 in coastal Alabama after the spill. These conversations showed how this environmental disaster took a toll on youth, and shed light on ways to bolster future recovery efforts.

Disruptions to Family and Peer Connections

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill disrupted longstanding cultural ties to the water and social ties between youth and their families—which were often rooted in boating, fishing, and swimming on the Gulf. For many youth, Gulf-centered recreation was at the crux of family time and part of their earliest memories, long-standing family traditions, and everyday routines. For some interviewees, the closing of the waters marked a loss of autonomy and freedom, because they couldn’t spend time independently boating and fishing with peers. Some young people expressed that the closure of the Gulf waters elicited feelings of lonesomeness, sadness, and anger. Many were especially discouraged because for months there was no certainty about when the Gulf would reopen and they could return to these pastimes. As one 16-year-old said: “We didn’t go fishing or swimming last summer. I’ve never seen the beaches closed down before. Not fishing at all last summer was kind of a lonesome feeling."

Toxic Contamination

Even when the Gulf did reopen months after the spill, youth struggled to reconcile water safety issues with their desire to return to these cherished recreational activities. Given the lack of information and clear messaging, some young people developed strategies that made them feel safe, such as the study participant who swam at the local beach but not in deeper waters, believing that this would prevent exposure to toxins. Similarly, another teen noted that he did not keep the fish he caught when he began fishing again after the spill. However, after not witnessing any negative health consequences for those who were eating locally caught fish, he eventually decided that it was safe for him to eat his catch as well. These examples point to the need to provide youth with scientifically based, age-appropriate information to guide decision making.

Economic Impacts

As one teen said, “being out on the water is not only our loves, but our careers…we depend on the water.” Other teens shared how the disaster was having a detrimental economic impact on their families and communities, because many in the Bayou work in industries such as commercial seafood and shipbuilding, which rely on a healthy Gulf. These findings align with other work that shows that the long-term effects of toxic contamination and associated economic impacts can cause increased psychosocial stress among adults and their families.

After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, youth used three common strategies to try to help buffer economic the impacts for their families: (1) taking on increased household chores while parents worked extra hours or took a second job; (2) seeking employment to help with family finances; and (3) translating BP claim paperwork from English to Vietnamese or Spanish to help the family collect compensation.

Ways to Support Youth Following Environmental Disasters

Key ways to support youth in the face of environmental disasters and enhance their agency in the recovery process include better understanding their distinct needs, openly communicating about concerns around economic impacts, and facilitating learning opportunities at school.

Recognize Youth Have Distinctive Needs

Community members and social service and mental health providers need to understand the ways in which environmental or toxic disasters can directly impact youth well-being by creating a shift in how they interact with their family members, peers, community members, and the surrounding physical environment. For instance, environmental contamination can prohibit youth from engaging in activities that were at the core of their everyday lives, as was evidenced by the narratives in my study.

Openly Address Youth Concerns in the Household

Parents and caregivers should make an effort to talk openly with youth about disaster-related issues and uncertainties—especially associated with health issues and economic uncertainty—to help them make sense of the disaster and its potential implications. These conversations can also lessen teen’s concerns about how their families will respond to financial hardships. Even when families have relatively few disaster-related disruptions, when parents actively open the lines of communication it can help ease any distress or uneasiness that might arise.

Make Space at School for Youth to Engage About Environmental Disasters

In addition to parents, teachers play a key role in communicating about environmental disaster recovery. Teachers can use environmental disasters as teachable moments to educate youth about hazardous threats, which can inform their decision making. For instance, science and environmental studies classes can help young people learn to interpret accuracy and validity of scientific data to understand the impacts of environmental disasters. Teachers also need to consider, however, that some youth find school to be an escape from the disaster-related conflicts in their home, so a balance needs to be struck, as well.

Given the disruptions that environmental disaster can cause in communities, these strategies can help youth better make sense of and recover from environmental disasters. Ultimately, deliberate youth engagement around environmental disasters will also help make communities more resilient by bolstering support systems where youth can actively tackle issues that concern them.

Suggested Tools

Children in Disasters and Emergencies: Health Information Guide
Disaster Information Management Research Center

Collection of articles related to children’s health in disasters.

For a list of all the tools included in this special collection, visit the Children and Disasters Tool Index.