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Human Health Tragedy in the Making: Gulf Response Failing to Protect People

Riki Ott

GRAND BAYOU, Louisiana -- The federal agencies delegated with protecting the environment, worker safety, and public health are in hot water in the small coastal communities across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Fishermen responders who are working BP's giant uncontrolled slick in the Gulf are reporting bad headaches, hacking coughs, stuffy sinuses, sore throats, and other symptoms. The Material Safety Data Sheets for crude oil and the chemical products being used to disperse and break up the slick -- underwater and on the surface -- list these very illnesses as symptoms of overexposure to volatile organic carbons (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide, and other chemicals boiling off the slick.

When the fishermen come home, they find their families hacking, snuffling, and complaining of sore throats and headaches, too. There is a good reason for the outbreak of illnesses sweeping across this area.

Last weekend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted its air quality monitoring data from the greater Venice, Louisiana, area. The data showed federal standards were being exceeded by 100- to 1,000-fold for VOCs, and hydrogen sulfide, among others--and that was on shore. These high levels could certainly explain the illnesses and were certainly a cause for alarm in the coastal communities.

I wrote an article based on EPA's information. So did chemist Wilma Subra with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). Baton Rouge-based LEAN is an advocate of public health and worker safety, and a trusted source of information on chemicals, exposure, and safety monitoring throughout this region.

Two days after the EPA posted its air quality monitoring data, most of it vanished from its website--except for the data showing the very highest level of airborne chemicals. Subra reports that she had a conference call with EPA officials yesterday and those officials confirmed that the higher levels they initially reported had remained on the site and were accurate.

"The detection levels on the instrumentation used by the EPA were not accurate enough to report airborne chemicals at lower levels," explains Subra. "So the EPA removed the data showing low levels from their website. But the EPA maintained the higher levels--those concentrations of 5 to 10 parts per billion, the concentration where you start getting acute health impacts."

This raises serious concerns for people in and around the coastal city of Venice, Louisiana, where the data were collected. And concentrations of oil and chemical dispersants are expected to be much, much higher offshore above the slick. How high? Five oil rigs have been shut down in the Gulf near BP's blowout allegedly because of concerns about fire. However, many of the fishermen in this area also work on the rigs. And the fishermen know the oil workers coming in from the rigs are suffering identical symptoms to the fishermen and their families.

But oilmen and fishermen are not being treated the same by BP and other oil companies operating in the Gulf. Oilmen are being evacuated because of high concentrations of dangerous chemicals, according to the fishermen, not fire danger. Meanwhile, fishermen responders are not even being provided with respirators for cleanup work - much less being protected from "fire danger."

As someone who witnessed the Exxon Valdez disaster, I saw this same charade unfold 20 years ago in Prince William Sound-and the result was literally thousands of sick cleanup workers who thought they had "the Valdez Crud," or simple colds and flu. Instead Exxon likely dismissed injured workers - and its own responsibility/liability to take care of these people - using an exemption for reporting "colds and flu" in hazardous waste cleanup regulations. 29 CFR (1904.5(b)(2)(viii)

The response to the BP leak is starting to look an awful lot like what happened during the Exxon Valdez cleanup. BP is not a self-regulated company, but it sure is acting like one.

The federal agencies responsible for monitoring public health and worker safety need to take aggressive action to prevent human tragedy. EPA should do continuous monitoring of air quality across the oil-impacted Gulf states--rather than only in communities where the oil is coming ashore--and EPA should post all the data it collects. It is public information and the people have a right to know about a toxic menace in their communities. If air quality continues to exceed public safety standards, the federal government has an obligation to act to evacuate people-just as it would in response to a hurricane, except at BP's expense.

Further, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) officials should be monitoring BP's worker-safety program. OSHA has a responsibility to order BP to take steps to figure out why workers are getting sick and to order BP to take immediate preventative action. This is all supposed to be part of BP's worker-safety program and it's up to the federal government to make sure BP's plan works in practice as stated on paper.

The current situation is a disaster in the making. Fishermen who ask BP for respirators jeopardize their cleanup jobs. So, they've stopped asking. Fishermen are aware that only three workers need to request a Health Hazard Evaluation for the federal government to take action. But no one has stepped up because fisheries have closed and spill response might be the only job they have--even if it might cost them their health or life, as happened to Exxon Valdez workers.

Americans need to demand that Congress authorize the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety to conduct a Health Hazard Evaluation of the Gulf situation. Failure to have our regulatory agencies act immediately to protect people's health in impacted coastal communities is a crime our country cannot afford to commit.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Riki Ott

Riki Ott

Riki Ott, PhD is a Marine toxicologist and Exxon Valdez survivor. Her book, "Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez" (2008). She is a co-founder of Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute.

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