Officials ask BP to protect health of workers cleaning up oil spill

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; 5:21 PM

Federal health officials Friday called on BP to protect the health of workers cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico and residents living along the coast and outlined steps the government was taking to respond to any physical and mental health problems that emerge from the disaster.

The announcement came in response to scattered reports of illnesses among cleanup workers and some residents, which has prompted criticism from members of Congress, local activist groups and independent scientists that not enough was being done.

"We're very concerned about the impact of disaster on the public health of people in gulf region," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, adding that she had sent a letter to BP Chairman Lamar McKay urging the company "to take responsibility for the health consequences of the disaster."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring poison centers and other reporting systems for signs of any emerging medical problems, Sebelius said. The Environmental Protection Agency had tested more than 15,000 air samples from Venice, La., to Pensacola, Fla., and had not yet not yet detected dangerous substances at hazardous levels, she said. More than 500 water and soil samples had also been tested, she said.

Nevertheless, the National Disaster Medical System has been activated to provide any needed additional medical care for the five gulf states, and a federal mobile medical unit was being sent to Louisiana to help assess anyone complaining of illness, Sebelius said.

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. One worker remained hospitalized Friday, and an investigation was underway to try to determine the cause.

At least one senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency has questioned the official reassurances, noting the dearth of monitoring data that has 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 said during an interview Thursday. "There's no way you can be working in that toxic soup with getting exposures."

The reports of the illnesses have prompted members of Congress and local fishermen's groups to call on BP to take more steps to protect workers, who are considered at greatest risk. One congressman has federal officials 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.

Assessing the health risks is also complicated by several unknowns, including a lack of information about the makeup of chemicals being used to disperse the oil and how those substances might affect the toxicity of the oil, several experts said.

The most worrisome chemicals are volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, which can cause cancer at high levels and long exposures. But those and other substances can cause acute symptoms including severe skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea and burning eyes, 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 safety course in English, Spanish and Vietnamese that all cleanup workers are supposed to complete before they can begin work. 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.

Some critics are calling for all workers to be equipped with respirators, a move 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.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is gathering information about clean-up workers 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, reducing the risk from dangerous fumes to residents along the coast. But they will still face risks from 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. The Food and Drug Administration is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help determine when fishing can safely resume, Sebelius said.

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