Nicholas Forte has spent the last year with an array of health issues. Headaches. Migraines. Nausea. Breathing problems so severe they would land him in the hospital.
“We have no idea what it is,” the 22-year-old Battle Creek resident told Michigan Messenger. “Then it escalated to seizures.”
And while the seizures landed him in the hospital — at one point stopping his heart and his breathing — doctors are at a loss to understand why. Tests indicate none of the expected patterns for epilepsy.
Finding out why the formerly healthy young man had suddenly fallen ill drove him and his family to listen to Riki Ott, an environmental toxicologist who has been tracking the health impacts of oil spills on human beings since her home was impacted by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Ott was in Battle Creek Wednesday night at the invitation of local activists.
And when Forte asked Ott about his symptoms, she nodded an affirmative.
“We see that in 16-year olds in the Gulf,” she said. And Forte was not the only person she may have given much needed answers to. Nearly 50 people gathered to talk about headaches, nausea, burning eyes, memory loss and rashes. There were young and old, African-Americans and whites, rural residents and city dwellers, all with one thing in common — they live by the Kalamazoo River and were exposed to last year’s Enbridge Energy Partners Lakehead Pipeline 6B.
For Ott, it was a litany list of symptoms and voices of frustration she has heard from Alaska to South Korea to the Gulf Coast and now in Calhoun county. And Calhoun, she says, represents exposures to both tar sands and lighter oils, each with its own chemical make ups and attendant toxins.
“You’ve got the worst of two worlds. You’re getting a fully double whammy,” she says of the Cold Lake Crude Oil. “Peoples’ health problems (from the Enbridge spill) are identical to the Gulf.”
Ott says that studies about health impacts conducted by health officials since last summer are based on 40-year old science.
“We used to be able to use a thermometer and say, ‘yep, you’ve got a fever,’ but we didn’t have an understanding of how that worked on a cellular level,” she said. “Now, we have the tools and the ability to see how these chemicals impact us on a cellular level.”
Ott noted that just this July a peer-reviewed study of oil spill exposure found the same set of symptoms in each location. They are the identical to the ones being seen in Calhoun county. She also noted that the studies have begun to identify toxicity to DNA, as well as reproductive health impacts. She says many of the chemicals of concern to occupational and environmental health officials have been shown to impact fetuses in the first trimester.
Studies by the MDCH released this summer have indicated no risk of long term health effects. The National Wildlife Federation condemned the Aug. 17 report, calling it incomplete.
“By their own admission, multiple chemicals have not been fully tested. No doctor would look at a sick patient, skip doing a full diagnosis, and declare him fit as a fiddle. Officials are prematurely drawing conclusions about the risks of tar sands oil to human health.” said Beth Wallace with the Great Lakes Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation. “Residents at the meeting, including myself, were extremely skeptical and frustrated when hearing these conclusions from officials with MDCH. A complete study on the make-up of tar sands oil needs to be conducted before we can begin to truly understand the impacts to humans, wildlife and our environment.”
Ott had not had a chance to fully read the report before an interview with Michigan Messenger or the public meeting, but said this determination and realization that specific chemicals of concern have been excluded from a review is not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon for people to be diagnosed with colds and boils, month after month.
The reason, she says, is twofold. First, the doctors are unlikely to be fully versed on the issue of what she calls chemical illnesses. Second, she says, even if they are aware, most insurance companies have no billing code for the diagnosis. This means that if a doctor issues a diagnosis of chemical illness, it is unlikely an insurance company will pay the doctor for the care and time put into making that clinical diagnosis.
Part of the issue, Ott says, is that the science of exposure concerns and health issues is based on research conducted in the 1970s on volatile organic chemicals or VOCs. Those are the chemicals that easily evaporate into the air and can be smelled at long distances. They include things like benzene. But science has science developed a body of literature exploring the impacts of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. She says that while both chemicals may have persisted at significantly lower levels than considered unsafe, they accumulate in the body over the course of continued exposure.
She likens the human body to a rain barrel, able to safely overwhelm and eject only a certain level of toxins. When that threshold is reached, the body begins to “park” the chemicals in various places in the body until it is free from the continued exposure and can clear them. The more exposure, the more accumulation, the more chemical illness, she says.
On top of this, different members of the community are more at risk to chemical illness, like children, the elderly, African-Americans, those with chronic health issues and the poor.
“The medical community knows this,” she says. “The public policies have not been adjusted to reflect the new science because the petrochemical lobby is so strong that it is blocking the health consequences of our continued oil use.”
Ott says sick people are a problem for oil companies and the government.
“It’s not just a simple pipeline break or a rig blow out. It’s America’s energy future, the politicians have no exit strategy off oil,” she says. “So they minimize the costs in sick people, lost babies, it doesn’t matter. That’s what we’re seeing. Battle Creek is a pawn in this giant bid for Alberta tar sands. It doesn’t matter that it happened in Battle Creek … there will be countless communities in the future. What is starting to change is that — after witnessing this over two decades now — this is a decision that is not going to be made by the politicians, our energy policy, it’s going to be the people. Fracking, tar sands, there is a moral obligation for future life and immediate public health that we do something different. That will give enough transformation to bring the politicians along.”