Illnesses among workers highlight concerns about health risks of oil cleanup

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 6:54 PM

Scattered reports of illnesses among workers helping to clean up oil in the Gulf of Mexico have highlighted concerns about possible health risks posed by the disaster and cleanup efforts.

In the latest incident, seven workers were hospitalized Wednesday after complaining of nausea, dizziness and headaches, prompting the Coast Guard to order all 125 boats working in the Breton Sound area to return to port as a precaution. Five of the workers were released Thursday, but two remained hospitalized and an investigation was underway to try to determine the cause.

"God knows what kinds of exposures people are getting," said Edward Overton, a professor of environmental chemistry at Louisiana State University. "There are lots of things in oil that you wouldn't want to be exposed to."

Local, state and federal officials, along with independent experts, have been monitoring for any signs that the oil or chemicals being used to try to clean it up are making workers or residents sick. Air monitoring has not found any alarmingly high levels of toxic chemicals, officials said.

"We're on the boats, we're on the beaches, we're in the marshes -- we're everywhere we need to be," said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. "So far we have not found anything that causes great concern. If we do, we will respond immediately."

But at least one senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency questioned the official reassurances, noting that none of the monitoring data had been released publicly. He likened the response to previous toxic waste disasters and the World Trade Center cleanup, which left workers with long-term respiratory problems despite repeated official claims that workers did not need respirators because the working conditions were safe.

"It's unbelievable what's going on. It's like deja vu all over again," said Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA's office of solid waste and emergency response. "We saw this on the Exxon Valdez. We saw this with Love Canal. We saw it with 911. How many times do we have to see this? There's no way you can be working in that toxic soup with getting exposures."

The reports of the illnesses have also caused alarm among members of Congress, who called on BP to take more steps to protect workers, who are considered at greatest risk, and a request to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to set up temporary health clinics in the area.

The situation is being complicated by the working and weather conditions, which include long hours in severe heat and humidity. That can cause symptoms similar to those triggered by some of the chemicals workers may be exposed to.

"That doesn't mean people are imagining this. There certainly may be levels of material that smell really bad that can cause headache or eye irritation and some of these other symptoms. It could be heat, dehydration or exhaust from the boats. We just don't know yet," Barab said.

Assessing the health risks is also complicated by several unknowns, including how the chemicals being used to disperse the oil might affect the toxicity of the oil, several experts said.

The most worrisome chemicals are substances known as volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and toluene, which can cause cancer at high levels and long exposures. Although such substances have been detected in air sampling, the levels have been within the range considered safe, officials said.

But those and other substances, such as hydrogen sulfide, can cause acute symptoms including severe skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea and burning sensations, as well as breathing problems and neurological complications including memory problems, confusion and disorientation. Most acute symptoms from the chemical exposure disappear after the exposure ends, but long-term complications can occur. Some fishermen involved in cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska suffered long-lasting neurological problems.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences designed a worker safety training course in English, Spanish and Vietnamese that all gulf oil spill cleanup workers are supposed to complete before they can be hired. They are also supposed to be equipped with protective gear, such as gloves and boots.

Nevertheless, anecdotal reports have emerged of workers doing cleanup in street clothes and bare hands, raising questions about how well trained and equipped they are.

Some critics are calling for workers to be equipped with full-body hazardous waste suits and respirators -- a moved officials said they have not taken because most do not appear to be being exposed to dangerous levels of fumes that would make that necessary. Respirators and heavy suits could pose risks in the heat and difficult working conditions, they said.

"Respirators can stress the heart and lungs. And if you are out there in the heat and working hard it can be particularly unhealthy to be wearing a respirator," Barab said.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has started gathering information about clean-up workers in the hopes of being able to track their health and document any problems that might emerge.

The most worrisome substances in the oil that can become airborne are expected to have dissipated by the time most of the oil reaches shore through a process known as "weathering," reducing the risk of dangerous fumes to residents living along the coast. But they will still face risks of being exposed by getting the thicker oil on their skin. And because so much of the oil is traveling underwater, exactly what form it will take when it emerges remains unknown.

Over the long term, the oil could pose a risk to human health by getting into the food chain. As a result, fish and shellfish will have to be monitored closely for years for any signs of contamination.

"There's going to be a legacy of contamination in the gulf food web," said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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