The Big Lie: BP, Governments Downplay Public Health Risk From Oil and Dispersants

PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida -- When Ryan Heffernan, a volunteer with Emerald Coastkeeper, noticed a bag of oily debris floating off in Santa Rosa Sound, she ran up to BP's HazMat-trained workers to ask if they would retrieve it.

"No, ma'am," one replied politely. "We can't go in the ocean. It's contaminated."

Ryan waded in and retrieved the bag. That was Wednesday, June 23, the first day visible oil hit Pensacola Beach. Ryan had been swimming off the beach the day before, as she said, "to get in my last swim before the oil hit." The trouble is that not all of the oil coming ashore is visible. Dispersed oil - tiny bubbles of oil encased in chemical dispersants - are in the water column. On Thursday Ryan was treated at a local doctor's office for skin rash on her legs.

Three days later on Pensacola Beach, I watched BP's HazMat-trained workers shovel surface oiled sand and oily debris into bags early in the morning. The workers followed the waterline like shorebirds, scurrying up the beach in front of breaking waves and moving back down with receding waters.

The late morning sun retired the workers to the shade of their tents and the job of "observing," while it brought out throngs of beach-goers -- children, parents, grandparents -- who happily plunged into the "contaminated" ocean without a second thought.

I was astounded. Why did people think the ocean was safe for swimming?

There were five HazMat tents, four front-loaders, and at least two dozen HazMat workers on the beach. HazMat workers wore yellow over-boots duct-taped to their long pants' legs to minimize risk of contact with the water. The white surf popped with visible black tar balls as it rolled towards the beach. Waves left an oily signature of tar balls on the beach, melting in the sun. The treads of my Chacos weighed down with oily sand despite trying to avoid the mess. Most people were barefoot. Hotels set up oil cleaning stations on their premises - and signs saying the water advisory (put in place after Ryan's incident) had been lifted.

What's wrong with this picture?

Lots. For starters, Ryan's story from Pensacola Beach is not an isolated incident. I have received emails and heard personal stories from Louisiana to Florida of people who have developed skin rashes and blisters from going in the ocean. People describe stings by "invisible jellyfish." Turtle patrol volunteers who walk beaches daily write of blisters and bronchitis. And then there are individuals like Sheri Allen who took her dog for a walk on a beach in Mobile Bay in May.

Sheri wrote me that her "arms and legs were burning, even after the shower. The following morning ... (there were) ... small blood blisters. By evening the blisters had begun to welt. By the fourth day, the areas had got larger and swollen." She went to see a doctor but the sores remain and they have begun to scar her arms and legs. For several days after Sherri's incident, her husband found fish kills on the beach.

William Rea, MD, who founded the Environmental Health Center-Dallas, treated a number of sick Exxon Valdez cleanup workers. He once told me, "When you have sick people and sick animals, and they are sick because of the same chemical, that's the strongest evidence possible that that chemical is a problem."

It's not just skin rashes and blisters. At community forums, I commonly hear from adults and children with persistent coughs, stuffy sinuses, headaches, burning eyes, sore throats, ear bleeds, and fatigue. These symptoms are consistent across the four Gulf states that I have visited. Further, the symptoms of respiratory problems, central nervous system distress, and skin irritation are consistent with overexposure to crude oil through the two primary routes of exposure: inhalation and skin contact.

Most distressing to me are stories about sick children. "Dose plus host makes the poison," I learned in toxicology. A small child is at risk of breathing a higher dose of contaminants per body weight than an adult. Children, pregnant women, people with compromised or stressed immune systems like cancer survivors and asthma sufferers, and African Americans are more at risk from oil and chemical exposure - the latter because they are prone to sickle cell anemia and 2-butoxyethanol can cause, or worsen, blood disorders.

Public officials have failed to sound an alarm about the public health threat because three federal agencies - DHHS, EPA, and OSHA - cannot find any unsafe levels of oil in air or water. Perhaps the federal air and water standards are not stringent enough to protect the public from oil pollution. Our federal laws are outdated and do not protect us from the toxic threat from oil - now widely recognized in the scientific and medical community.

BP is still in the dark ages on oil toxicity. BP officials stress that, by the time oil gets to shore, it is "weathered" and missing the highly volatile compounds like the carcinogenic benzene, among others. BP fails to mention the threat from dispersed oil, ultrafine particles (PAHs), and chemical dispersants, which include industrial solvents and proprietary compounds, many hazardous to humans.

If oil was so nontoxic, then why are the spill response workers giving hazardous waste training? Our federal government should stop pretending that everything is okay. What isn't safe for workers isn't safe for the general public either.

Ryan's rash was getting better until she sat on Pensacola Beach to watch fireworks on July 4. The next day her skin erupted in fiery red burns. She is worried about her health. So are many other people along the Gulf.

Perhaps it is time for the government to protect public health first and BP's profit second.

Click here to see Riki Ott's photos.

Riki Ott, PhD, is a marine toxicologist from Alaska, volunteering in the Gulf. She has written two books on surviving the Exxon Valdez oil spill - Sound Truth and Corporate Myths on biological impact of oil to people and wildlife, and Not One Drop on emotional impact of disaster trauma and litigation to people and community. Ott is working with Emerald Coastkeeper and others to petition the EPA to delist toxic chemical products in oil spill response.

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