The Obama administration has placed a lot of faith in BP, although the company is increasingly being attacked in public by politicians. The government is assuming that BP is going to work to clean up the spill and will pay damages associated with the spill. Unfortunately, how BP goes about these tasks may be guided more by addressing their PR problem than doing what is right for people living in the coastal areas affected by the spill.
Now there is evidence that clean up workers, often out-of-work fishermen hired by BP, are experiencing disturbing symptoms after being in areas contaminated with oil. It should be remembered that the oil gushing from the bottom of the ocean is not purified oil, and hence contains many toxic contaminants such as benzene in high amounts.
Oil clean up workers at the West Jefferson Medical Center have been presenting with a constellation of symptoms which often include breathing problems, nausea and headaches. It is unclear if the symptoms are due to vapors from the spill, direct contact with the oil, fumes from the burning of the oil, or even from the dispersant used by BP.
The Coast Guard, which almost seems to be conspiring with BP these days, appears to be repeating the party line put out by BP which is that heat exhaustion, heat, food poisoning or dehydration is the cause. True, but similar symptoms were suffered by workers who cleaned up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In addition, many of these fishermen have worked in the Gulf for years, if not decades. Surely by now they would have learned how to avoid everyday risks such as dehydration, heat exposure and food poisoning.
CNN.com recently reported a case involving a fishermen who, along with seven others working on the cleanup, began to experience dizziness and faintness. The fishermen reported smelling intense oil like vapors during the time they became ill. One had difficult breathing during the night, and was diagnosed as having “respiratory problems” by a doctor. A month later the fisherman’s wife reports that he is still not in his normal healthy state.
Many fishermen, who were out of work due to the spill, are reluctant to complain to BP out of fear of losing a job in hard economic times. BP at the beginning of the crisis had forced fishermen hired for cleanup activities to sign contracts promising not to file a lawsuit against BP. BP’s chief executive believes that food poisoning may have caused their problem. And BP won’t provide masks as they believe the air quality is good. BP is also being accused of not allowing workers to wear their own masks. Yet another instance of BP putting public image above doing what is right.
Gasoline and crude oil contain benzene, a known cancer causing agent. Benzene floats on water and evaporates into the air quickly, and thus could be inhaled by clean up workers. Symptoms of benzene exposure are vague and include headaches, dizziness, and vomiting, similar to symptoms that some of the cleanup workers have experienced. A variety of other compounds in crude oil could vaporize and cause respiratory distress. Especially concerning, in addition to benzene, are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are volatile chemicals which evaporate from an oil spill and can be smelled miles away. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the effects of the toxic chemicals in crude oil, and the minimum safe distance from the BP oil spill is unknown. Some researchers recommend that people working on crude oil clean ups use respirators in addition to protective suits.
While the Obama administration may be content with allowing BP to work on the under sea leak, it is clear that the clean up needs more federal oversight for the sake of the health of the clean up workers. Obviously, BP does not have the fisherman’s best interest at heart and doesn’t want word getting out that the unrefined oil is very toxic. In addition, long term exposure to dispersants may cause neurologic disorders, or damage other bodily organs such as the kidney or liver. Long term studies are lacking as oil spills of this magnitude are relatively rare.