STUDY OBJECTIVE--A chemical spill from an oil refinery exposed the local community to more than 40,000 lb of highly toxic and corrosive hydrofluoric acid. A community based symptom prevalence study found an association between exposure and physical symptoms: the psychological impact of the disaster and its potential effect on the reporting of physical symptoms is examined here. DESIGN--The study used a population based survey design consisting of two phases: phase I, the exposure phase, and, phase II, the symptom prevalence phase. SUBJECTS--In phase I, information indicative of exposure was collected on 10,811 individuals in a door to door survey of a geographically defined area. In phase II, symptom prevalence information was gathered through in-person interviews with 2509 subjects selected from the phase I census in a sampling scheme that balanced across the exposure categories with regard to age, gender, and predisposition. The refusal rate in both phases was < 5%. MEASUREMENT AND MAIN RESULTS--Stepwise logistic regression analyses were used to assess the relative predictive importance of psychological variables and hydrofluoric acid exposure in explaining the reported physical symptoms two years after the disaster. The findings show a linear relationship between the level of hydrofluoric acid exposure and the degree of psychological stress two years after the accident. High exposure had a long term (more than two years) impact on physical health for some self reported symptoms, even after controlling for the psychological impact. Some physical symptom reports, however, were better explained by psychological status than by exposure to hydrofluoric acid. The physical symptoms for which exposure was the major predictor were those for which the biological plausibility of a relationship with hydrofluoric acid exposure was direct. CONCLUSIONS--Measures of psychological status should be included in symptom studies of health sequelae to man-made disasters so that the physical effects of exposure can be more accurately assessed.
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