|The National Institutes of Health has embarked on a long-term
study to determine if cleanup workers’ health has been impacte
by exposure to petro-chemicals and dispersants. Thus far,
much of the evidence for adverse health effects is anecdotal.
|Some oil spill workers (pictured laying boom at
Pass A Loutre on June 11, 2010) say their early complaints of
headaches were brushed off as seasickness.
|Dr. Mike Robichaux|
Working with LEAN and Smith is a team of researchers and scientists across the Gulf Coast led by environmental scientists and toxicologists William Sawyer and Marco Kaltofen. The team has collected seafood samples for safety tests and sent blood work to Metametrix, a clinical laboratory in Duluth, Ga. Results from one patient’s volatile solvents blood screening show higher-than-average levels of ethylbenzene and xylene, two compounds present in oil. According to Metametrix, adverse effects that can follow exposure to the compounds include “brain fog,” hearing loss, headache and fatigue; continued exposure to xylene can affect kidneys, lungs, the heart and the nervous system. The patient’s blood work also showed the presence of hexane, 2-Methylpentane and 3-Methylpentane and isooctane — compounds present in oil and gas.
LEAN also reported three divers from EcoRigs, a nonprofit marine science group, showed high levels of ethylbenzene and xylene in their blood tests after diving in the Gulf near Grand Isle and the Mississippi Canyon, the site of the Deepwater rig explosion. Their symptoms include bloody stools, bleeding from the nose and eyes, nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps and dizziness.
From July to October 2010, LABB and Tulane University’s Disaster Resiliency Leadership Academy performed 934 health surveys of residents in Terrebonne, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes at seven survey sites. The results show three-quarters of respondents reported an increase in coughing, eye irritation, headaches and sinus irritation. Grand Isle resident Betty Dowd, who suffers a persistent cough, says its residents need blood work “to find out what exactly is causing these problems — whether it’s BP or not, we just need to know where it’s coming from.”
Pointing to the health and lack of long-term studies of Exxon Valdez victims, 9/11 cleanup workers and FEMA trailer residents, LABB director Anne Rolfes says she hopes the survey results serve as a warning sign. “We don’t want to be in a situation 10 years from now ... where we wish we would’ve done something,” she says. The data should be used “not just to study people but treat their problems,” she says. “We don’t want to end up in 10 years with data on a bunch of dead bodies.”
The report recommends the government provide better access to health care (including mental health services). Only 54 percent of respondents had health insurance, and just 31 percent sought treatment.
“The money’s another situation, that’ll come, the good Lord will take care of me and my family,” Bayhi says. “But without your health, you don’t have nothing. I just praise God every day that I’ll be able to wake up and continue to watch my little girls grow up.”
Many cleanup workers and coastal residents blame the dispersants and an oil-dispersant mix for their illnesses. Sprayed by planes and pumped into the Gulf, more than 1.8 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit were used to break up the oil — though the product is banned in the U.K., and in May 2010, the EPA provided BP with a list of less harmful dispersants. BP stuck with Corexit.
Douglas Blanchard, a third-generation fisherman (“I got my degree on the back deck of a shrimp boat,” he says), was hired to handle dispersants, but he says he wasn’t allowed to use a respirator. “They never gave us no nothing to breathe, no protection,” he says. “It was a bad smell — it’d burn your nose, your eyes, your throat, headaches. Take pills like they’re candy, all day.”
He was flown via helicopter to West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero where he says he was scrubbed with soap by workers clad in hazmat suits. “Afterward, they told us it’s not harmful,” he says. “We made good money, but the money’s not worth it.”
Tate Cantrell also remembers bringing a respirator on board his boat before handling dispersants and says he and his crew would be fired if they were caught wearing them. He says he now has trouble breathing. “It feels like an elephant on your chest all the time, like your lungs want to collapse,” he says. “I made a little bit of money, but everything I have now I’m trying to sell just to stay alive.”
The dispersants Cantrell and others were exposed to are a product of Nalco Holding Company, which has several high-profile oil industry ties. Former Exxon Mobil President Daniel Sanders now sits on Nalco’s board of directors, and its audit committee chairman, Rodney Chase, served as BP’s chief executive and managing director from 1992 to 2003.
Deepwater Horizon Response, the multi-agency oil response team helmed by BP, says it halted dispersant use in July, but both residents and cleanup workers say dispersant still was being sprayed months later.
Dr. Sandler with the NIH GuLF Study says one of the aspects of the study is a look at the effects of dispersants versus the effects from oil exposure. “I think the exposure people have had varied quite a bit, depending on where they were and when, and when things during the spill were happening,” she says. “The issue is, what is the source of the chemicals in their blood, and how to interpret it? By starting with the workers, we can see who among them gets sick. It will be easier to draw conclusions, [and] we’ll understand the full range. If one person gets sick, that’s not a trend. One of the concerns people have is if you measure someone’s blood today, it does not reflect exposure they received from the oil spill, unless there are ongoing exposures. As best I know, that oil well is capped. There may be other ongoing sources of oil in the community or other things to cause the [levels of contaminants in the blood] to go up, but until you’ve done studies like ours, you just don’t know what to make of it. But we do have concerns for these people. They need to get medical care. They need to be seen.”
What puzzles Robichaux and others, however, is that many blood screenings show no sign of chemicals despite the patients’ illnesses.
Sandler says the GuLF Study will examine long-term health effects and chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. She points to the 2002 Prestige disaster that spilled 20 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean off the Spanish coast. A Spanish Navy study five years later found those involved with cleanup suffered from lung and cardiovascular diseases.
“I’m very happy they want to put resources in documenting the workers’ health, but that’s not enough,” says Orr with LEAN. “Where’s someone to help them with all this?”
After the testimonies, Robichaux’s patients and their families and reporters swarm him. He smiles and shakes hands before going inside the house to see his daughter before she leaves for a dance.
In a private conversation, Robichaux confides, “I’ve been working for this community for 40 years. These are my people.” He sees about 60 patients, he says, though most from a distance. His wife Brenda is principal chief of the United Houma Nation.
“We don’t have answers,” Brenda tells the audience in Raceland. “But we’re trying to come together, get a really good handle on what’s happening — the illnesses and all the consequences — and stand together to see what we can do to see something happen.”
Clayton Matherne’s wife Becky echoes Brenda. “We all need to stick together as one,” she says. “Without us being a whole, we can’t fight, we can’t do nothing.”
Becky lowers her voice before she leaves the microphone. “I hope you all aren’t that sick,” she says. “And our prayers go out to you if you are.”
Alex Woodward is a staff writer for Gambit. A version of this story originally appeared in that publication.
SIX MONTHS OF TONY HAYWARD
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?”
“This is not our accident, but it’s our responsibility.”
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest. … Everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact will be very, very modest.”
“I do feel that we have, for the first time, turned the corner in this challenge.”
“It’s clear that the defense of the shoreline at this point has not been successful, and I feel devastated by that, absolutely.”
“The operation is proceeding as we planned it.”
“There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I want my life back.”
“I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment on Sunday when I said that I wanted my life back.”
“We will get this done. We will make this right.”
“What we have done so far is to pay every claim that’s been presented to us, and we will continue to do that. … It takes 12 seconds when you phone the BP claims line to be put into the process, be given a number. If you turn up at the claims office, within 48 hours you’re given a check.”
“There is no evidence of reckless behavior.”
“I believe the decision I have reached with the board to step down is consistent with the responsibility BP has shown throughout these terrible events.”
“I think BP’s response to this tragedy has been a model of good social corporate responsibility.”
“Whether it is fair or unfair is not the point. I became the public face [of the disaster] and was demonized and vilified ... Life isn’t fair. Sometimes you step off the pavement and get hit by a bus.”
Hayward steps down as head of BP.
“Contingency plans were inadequate. We were making it up day to day.”