"I have critically high levels of chemicals in my body," 33-year-old Steven Aguinaga of Hazlehurst, Mississippi told Al Jazeera. "Yesterday I went to see another doctor to get my blood test results and the nurse said she didn't know how I even got there."
Aguinaga and his close friend Merrick Vallian went swimming at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, in July 2010.
"I swam underwater, then found I had orange slick stuff all over me," Aguinaga said. "At that time I had no knowledge of what dispersants were, but within a few hours, we were drained of energy and not feeling good. I've been extremely sick ever since."
BP's oil disaster last summer gushed at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest accidental marine oil spill in history - and the largest environmental disaster in US history. Compounding the problem, BP has admitted to using at least 1.9 million gallons toxic dispersants, including one chemical that has been banned in the UK.
According to chemist Bob Naman, these chemicals create an even more toxic substance when mixed with crude oil. Naman, who works at the Analytical Chemical Testing Lab in Mobile, Alabama, has been carrying out studies to search for the chemical markers of the dispersants BP used to both sink and break up its oil.
Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from this toxic mix are making people sick, Naman said. PAHs contain compounds that have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic.
"The dispersants are being added to the water and are causing chemical compounds to become water soluble, which is then given off into the air, so it is coming down as rain, in addition to being in the water and beaches of these areas of the Gulf," Naman told Al Jazeera.
"I'm scared of what I'm finding. These cyclic compounds intermingle with the Corexit [dispersants] and generate other cyclic compounds that aren't good. Many have double bonds, and many are on the EPA's danger list. This is an unprecedented environmental catastrophe."
Aguinaga's health has been in dramatic decline.
"I have terrible chest pain, at times I can’t seem to get enough oxygen, and I'm constantly tired with pains all over my body," Aguinaga explained, "At times I'm pissing blood, vomiting dark brown stuff, and every pore of my body is dispensing water."
And Aguinaga's friend Vallian is now dead.
"After we got back from our vacation in Florida, Merrick went to work for a company contracted by BP to clean up oil in Grand Isle, Louisiana," Aguinaga said of his 33-year-old physically fit friend.
"Aside from some gloves, BP provided no personal protection for them. He worked for them for two weeks and then died on August 23. He had just got his first paycheck, and it was in his wallet, uncashed, when he died."
National health crisis
Many of the chemicals present in the oil and dispersants are known to cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, kidney damage, altered renal function, and irritation of the digestive tract. They have also caused lung damage, burning pain in the nose and throat, coughing, pulmonary edema, cancer, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness, confusion, irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, difficulty breathing, delayed reaction time and memory difficulties.
Further health problems include stomach discomfort, liver and kidney damage, unconsciousness, tiredness/lethargy, irritation of the upper respiratory tract, hematological disorders, and death. Pathways of exposure to the chemicals are inhalation, ingestion, skin, and eye contact.
Al Jazeera has talked with scores of sick people across the Gulf Coast who attribute their illnesses to chemicals from BP's oil disaster.
Paul Doom, 22, from Navarre, Florida, was training in preparation to join the US Marines, until he became extremely ill from swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I stopped swimming in July because I started having severe headaches that wouldn’t go away," Doom told Al Jazeera. "But each time I went to the doctor they dismissed it."
In October, Doom began to have internal bleeding, but this too was dismissed by doctors. In November, when it worsened, he was given pain medications in the Emergency Room and was told it would pass. Less then three weeks after that, Doom collapsed with a seizure.
"Since then, I've had two blood tests for Volatile Organic Compounds [VOC's] which are in BP's oil and dispersants, and they both came back with alarmingly high levels," he said.
Since the onset of his symptoms, Doom has been dealing with ongoing internal bleeding, nose bleeds, bleeding from his ears, blood in his stool, headaches, severe diarrhea, two to five seizures per day, paralysis in his left leg and arm, and failing vision.
"A toxicologist that interpreted my blood VOC results told me they didn't know how I was alive," Doom explained. "My Hexane was off the charts, and I have 2 and 3 Methylpentane, Iso-octane, Ethylbenze, and mp-Xylene."
Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Fellow and chemist in Louisiana, has been testing the blood of BP cleanup workers and residents in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Subra tested Doom's blood and found high amounts of several VOC's.
"Ethylbenzene, mp-Xylene and Hexane are volatile organic chemicals that are present in the BP crude oil," Subra told Al Jazeera. "We're finding these in excess of the 95th percentile, which is the average for the entire nation. Sometimes we're finding amounts 5 to 10 times in excess of the 95th percentile."
Subra explained that there has been long enough exposure so as to create chronic impacts, that include "Liver damage, kidney damage, and damage to the nervous system. So the presence of these chemicals in the blood indicates exposure."
Testing by Subra has also revealed the chemicals are present "in coastal soil sediment, wetlands, and in crab, oyster and mussel tissues."
Since January, at least 67 dead dolphins have washed ashore along the Gulf Coast, an event the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared as "an unusual mortality event". In the whole of 2010, 89 dolphin deaths were reported for the same area.
In January, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute chemist and colleagues reported that the toxic chemical dispersants BP used to sink its crude oil remained in the deep ocean in an oil and gas-laden plume that had still not degraded.
Also in January, Louisiana Senator AG Crowe wrote a letter to President Barack Obama expressing his deep concern about the toxic dispersants BP used, and according to Senator Crowe, continues to use along the Gulf Coast.
"Mr President, my concern is that this toxic and damaging chemical is still being used and it will compound the long-term damage to our state, our citizens, our eco-system, our economy, our seafood industry, our wildlife and our culture," the letter read.
"We will not be fooled in to believing that the oil and the toxins are gone. Because the toxic dispersants have been, and are still being used today, the oil is being forced downward in to the water columns and then carried endlessly around and about by the Gulf currents adversely affecting our environment."
Subra, the MacArthur Fellow, is alarmed by what she is finding in the people whose blood she is testing.
"Severe symptoms, lots of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and skin lesions," she explained. "There is a lot of internal bleeding, and the chemicals cause this by disrupting the integrity of the red blood cells."
Subra said: "We’re seeing the chemicals in different classes of people. Cleanup workers employed by BP, clean-up workers no longer employed, and we’re seeing it in community members who come in contact with the crude by fishing or recreating in the Gulf."
Al Jazeera asked Subra what she thought the local, state and federal governments should be doing about the ongoing chemical exposures.
"There is a lack of concern by the government agencies and the [oil] industry." She said, “There is a leaning towards wanting to say it's all fixed and let's move on, when it's not. The crude oil is continuing to come on shore in tar mats, balls, and strings."
Subra continued: "So the exposure continues. There is still a large amount of crude in the marshes and buried on the beaches. As long as that pathway is there for exposure, these problems will continue quite a long time into the future."
A bunch of guinea pigs
Jo Billups is an environmental activist who has taken it upon herself to assist in the funding, along with her friend Michelle Nix, in the blood testing being carried out by Subra.
Working with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and several doctors along the Gulf Coast, Billups and Nix have been holding workshops and helping sick people get their blood tested and find medical assistance.
"We have sick people from Apalachicola, Florida, to Grand Isle, Louisiana, and it's not stopping and that's what's disturbing," Billups said. "The levels we are seeing are not dropping, and we're seeing new chemicals now. We gave some of our blood test results to [EPA head] Lisa Jackson. They know what is going on, and they are not doing anything about it."
"The saddest part is the children," Billups added. "We’re seeing young children with extremely high levels of chemicals. We're altering our DNA and our bodies forever, We're a bunch of guinea pigs."
Jennifer Rexford, from Panama City, Florida, was an oil clean-up worker for BP.
"We were taken to clean up oil and tar balls with inadequate equipment," Rexford told Al Jazeera. "We regularly got oil all over us."
Rexford now has a staph infection that covers much of her body that she attributes to the chemicals in BP's oil she was cleaning up.
"Everyone I know of that I worked with are now having kidney problems, along with lots of other illnesses," Rexford, who has been to the hospital four times trying to find a solution to her infection, said. "My neighbor has a rash all over her body, and another clean-up worker I know found a lump in her breast a month ago. So when I started calling my co-workers, I realized that we’re all sick."
"I have documentation and images showing lesions in my brain," Paul Doom said. "Lesions that are the same as lesions on the brains of marine life from the Exxon Valdez spill from marine necropsies. This is a life and death situation and a race against time."
Doom said the water and food along the Gulf Coast are not safe, and he is angry at the Obama administration.
"I would ask them why have they allowed this to happen," he said, "How can you live with yourself knowing you allowed this to happen and continue?"
Aguinaga feels betrayed as well.
"I feel stabbed in the back by my own country," he said, "I feel we are being dictated to by a foreign power. Maybe our president is not strong enough to stand up against them. I know money buys people, but they couldn't offer me enough money for the loss of my friend, and the stuff we’re going through."
Aguinaga's prognosis for the future of Gulf Coast residents?
"We’re all lab rats and we didn’t even know it. We’re waiting to see how it’s going to turn out."