On May 19 marine toxicologist Riki Ott warned that symptoms known to be caused by overexposure to "volatile organic carbons (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide, and other chemicals boiling off the slick" were appearing not only in "[f]ishermen responders who are working BP's giant uncontrolled slick in the Gulf" but in "their families . . . too." -- (Ott worked on the Exxon Valdez spill; see here for a video on her experience.) -- On the weekend of May 15-16, "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." -- Data originally posted on the EPA website have been removed, Ott said. -- On May 27, the Houston Chronicle reported that "Seven workers skimming oil from waters near shore were hospitalized after reporting dizziness, headaches, and nausea." -- Yet Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said that "So far we have not found anything that causes great concern," the Washington Post reported the same day. -- "'It's unbelievable what's going on. It's like déjà 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 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," Rob Stein said. -- CNN reported on May 29 that two more workers "were taken to West Jefferson Hospital in suburban New Orleans on Saturday after complaining of nausea, headaches, and dizziness after low-flying planes applied chemical dispersants within one mile of operating cleanup vessels." -- This is the same hospital where the first seven were taken, yet "the hospital doesn't have a toxicology department, so it couldn't identify the irritant." -- On May 29, McClatchy Newspapers revealed that last week "Federal regulators complained in an internal memo about 'significant deficiencies' in BP's handling of the safety of oil-spill workers, saying that "The organizational systems that BP currently has in place, particularly those related to worker safety and health training, protective equipment, and site monitoring, are not adequate for the current situation or the projected increase in cleanup operations." -- "Worker-safety advocates said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should be doing more," said Marisa Taylor and Erika Bolstad....
HUMAN HEALTH TRAGEDY IN THE MAKING: GULF RESPONSE FAILING TO PROTECT PEOPLE
By Riki Ott
May 19, 2010
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.
7 GULF OIL SPILL CLEANUP WORKERS HOSPITALIZED
By Janet McConnaughey and Matthew Brown
May 27, 2010
NEW ORLEANS -- Seven workers skimming oil from waters near shore were hospitalized after reporting dizziness, headaches, and nausea.
Air tests had found all chemicals within safety limits before boats were sent out Wednesday to skim oil from Breton Sound, but all 125 boats working there were docked while authorities investigated the illness, the Coast Guard said.
Five workers were released from the hospital Thursday and two kept for observation, said Capt. Meredith Austin, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
Crewmen and relatives blamed chemical dispersants, and an emergency room doctor said the symptoms -- including weakness, rashes, and coughs -- were typical of chemical exposure, West Jefferson Medical Center spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said.
Austin said no dispersants had been used within 50 miles of the affected crewmen. She said fatigue, working in hot weather, dehydration and "even the smell of petroleum" can bring on similar symptoms.
"We're not saying this to discount what happened to our people. . . . But I just wanted to point out that there are other factors," she said Thursday.
Audrey Gaspard said in video released by the hospital that her husband and son had elevated blood pressure. She said her son also had chest pains and headache.
Alfonzo said patients and relatives all refused to talk directly to reporters.
On Wednesday night, authorities said four workers on three boats on Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, had become ill. The area is home to sensitive wildlife refuges and barrier islands.
Austin said the men had been issued protective suits, gloves, hard hats, safety glasses, steel-toed boots, and life jackets.
"They were not issued respiratory protection because air readings were taken and no values found at an unsafe level prior to sending them out there," she said.
Alfonzo said the men told doctors some were issued "paper suits" and gloves as protective gear but others were not. Those who felt ill were not wearing gear, she said.
BP PLC, which is overseeing cleanup efforts, is working with the Coast Guard on the issue, company spokesman Steve Rinehart said.
Potential hazards faced by cleanup workers include benzene, a chemical found in crude oil, and the dispersants that have been sprayed on the spill to break it into smaller droplets.
On Monday, shrimper Clint Guidry said fisherman workers had told him that they were not being given respirators -- not even those working in the most dangerous area closest to the well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
BP spokesman Darren Beaudo denied the allegation. He said respirators were issued to crews of all boats working "source control" close to the well, and crews were trained to use them if necessary.
However, he said constant air quality monitoring by boats in that area and on wearable "badges" worn by supervisors on boats in areas judged the most dangerous generally found safe levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds.
Repeated tests showed respirators weren't needed for crews working to clean oil or lay boom closer to shore, Beaudo said.
"Folks working those crews are not expected or trained to work in circumstances that would require respirators. If they were in that sort of situation they would be removed immediately," Beaudo said.
Guidry also alleged that "when some individuals brought their own respirators, they were told by BP representatives on site that if they wore the respirators they would be released from the job."
Beaudo responded: "I'm not aware that that has happened. It would be contradictory to our approach to safety."
He said anyone would be free to use a mask meeting OSHA specifications.
Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said there was not enough air quality monitoring being done by state and federal agencies. She said her group planned to start collecting air samples of its own in the spill zone beginning Thursday.
"We're putting these people out there as canaries in the coal mine," she said.
Short-term benzene exposure causes drowsiness, dizziness, tremors, confusion, rapid heartbeat, headaches and -- at very high levels -- unconsciousness and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
--Associated Press Writer Greg Bluestein in Robert, La., contributed to this report.
ILLNESSES AMONG WORKERS HIGHLIGHT CONCERNS ABOUT HEALTH RISKS OF OIL CLEANUP
By Rob Stein
May 27, 2010
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 déjà 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.
MORE OIL WORKERS FALL SICK ON THE JOB
May 29, 2010
At least two more oil spill cleanup workers have been hospitalized after feeling ill on the job, according to local shrimpers who are assisting in the recovery effort along the Gulf Coast.
The workers were taken to West Jefferson Hospital in suburban New Orleans on Saturday after complaining of nausea, headaches, and dizziness after low-flying planes applied chemical dispersants within one mile of operating cleanup vessels, according to Louisiana Shrimpers Association acting President Clint Guidry.
"My shrimpers can do this job," Guidry told the reporters. "They just need the air quality monitored and they need the proper protective equipment, which is not being done."
Guidry, a Vietnam veteran, compared the dispersants being used to combat the spill to the deadly chemical weapon, Agent Orange, and said the actions of BP, the oil company responsible for the massive spill, should land officials in jail.
"The U.S. Coast Guard should be monitoring this," he said. "Somebody needs to take control of the situation."
Earlier in the week, seven oil spill recovery workers were hospitalized in New Orleans after complaining of feeling ill. All were properly trained and had protective gear on, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator for the oil spill response effort in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The heat and humidity in Louisiana can be challenging," Landry told reporters Thursday afternoon.
She said the workers were treated for several symptoms, including headaches, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath. Safety officials from the Coast Guard, BP and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had responded to the incident, Landry.
An investigation is under way "to make sure what we can do to ensure that these workers are all working in safe conditions," Landry said. "We will continue to monitor this situation very carefully so that nobody is put in harm's way as they respond to this spill," she added.
The seven workers were also treated at West Jefferson Medical Center in suburban New Orleans, said spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said. Most have been discharged.
Based on their symptoms, the seven workers appeared to have come into contact with some type of irritant, Alfonzo said. However, the hospital doesn't have a toxicology department, so it couldn't identify the irritant.
"It's difficult with things like that to know what exactly is the cause," said Dr. LuAnn White, professor and director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health in New Orleans, Louisiana.
It's possible to become sickened if volatile compounds still remain in the oil, she said. If a worker has direct contact with concentrated dispersants -- chemicals intended to break up the oil -- before they're mixed into the water, that could affect their health.
A BP spokesman, John Curry, has said the company takes "worker safety seriously." The company also said it has provided spill recovery workers with protective equipment, such as suits, steel-toed boots, gloves, hard hats, and safety glasses.
In addition, BP said, workers are conducting about 250 air-quality tests a day. They also are testing workers for exposure to irritants and other substances that could be harmful, BP said.
The company also noted that testing has shown that "airborne contaminants are well within safe limits."
About 10 workers complained of feeling ill on Wednesday, prompting officials to recall more than 100 boats from an area adjacent to the Mississippi River delta. Lisa Faust with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said she believes as many as five were treated at the scene.
U.S. FEARS BP CLEANUP WORKERS IMPERILED
By Marisa Taylor and Erika Bolstad
** Federal regulators complained in an internal memo about "significant deficiencies" in BP's handling of the safety of oil-spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address a litany of concerns. **
May 29, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators complained in an internal memo about "significant deficiencies" in BP's handling of the safety of oil-spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address a litany of concerns.
The memo, written by a Labor Department official last week, reveals the Obama administration's growing concerns about potential health and safety problems posed by the oil spill.
BP said it has deployed about 22,000 workers to combat the spill.
David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health who wrote the memo, raised the concerns Tuesday, the day before seven oil-spill workers on boats off the coast of Louisiana were hospitalized after experiencing nausea, dizziness and headaches.
In his memo to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, Michaels said his agency has witnessed numerous problems at several work sites.
"The organizational systems that BP currently has in place, particularly those related to worker safety and health training, protective equipment, and site monitoring, are not adequate for the current situation or the projected increase in cleanup operations," Michaels wrote.
He added that BP "has also not been forthcoming with basic, but critical, safety and health information on injuries and exposures."
Michaels raised the alarm about BP as his own agency came under fire for not being aggressive enough in monitoring the company or the contractors who are providing oil-spill cleanup training.
Graham MacEwen, a spokesman for BP, said his company is being responsive to problems as they develop.
Worker-safety advocates said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should be doing more. Most workers are getting only the minimum hazardous-material training required, which is four hours.
Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said OSHA doesn't think cleanup workers needed more extensive training.
"From what we know right now . . . we think the four-hour training is adequate," Barab said. "That being said, we are constantly reassessing what's going down there."