Five years after the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, communities along the Gulf of Mexico continue to struggle with the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to University of Florida researchers engaged in a series of projects funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

And while most of the nation’s attention continues to focus on the environmental and financial toll of the spill that killed 11 workers and flooded Gulf waters with millions of gallons of oil, the less obvious consequences, including those related to public health, may prove the most long-lasting, researchers say.

“The individuals in these communities know how to deal with natural disasters such as hurricanes, but the oil spill forced them to face something they didn’t understand,” said J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and lead investigator of the study. “In terms of long-term effects, it’s always the monster you don’t know that’s the most unsettling.”

Morris and his team studied levels of anger, anxiety and depression at various points over the past five years in residents of Franklin County, Fla., and Baldwin County, Ala. The researchers observed that while 10 percent to 13 percent of the residents experienced mental health issues prior to the disaster, the figure rose to 30 percent to 40 percent in the two years after the spill.

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