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Gulf Oil Spill Sending Cleanup Workers to Hospitals


Cleanup workers associated with the Gulf oil spill are complaining of various flu-like symptoms, and about a dozen have been treated in area hospitals, according to recent news reports. The complaints are similar to those made by workers who cleaned up the Valdez oil spill about two decades ago, according to a Business Week article.

According to an Associated Press report, cleanup workers have been treated at West Jefferson Medical Center in New Orleans for symptoms that include nausea, headache, dizziness, chest pain, and respiratory problems. Such symptoms could result from inhaling the fumes from the burnoff of the crude oil, from breathing in the dispersants used on the oil, or from the oil itself.

A recent Business Week article noted that the Unified Command in Louisiana recalled 125 boats last week after it received complaints from cleanup crew members that they felt ill. Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, commented that “The reports that we’ve heard from hospitals and doctors have been [that the symptoms are due to] inhaled irritant exposure.” So far, however, the exact substances responsible for the symptoms have not been identified. Workers are blaming the dispersants.

The two dispersants used by BP, Corexit EC9500A and Corexit EC9527A, are either comparable or up to 20 times more toxic than a dozen other dispersants on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approved list of dispersants, according to a recent Christian Science Monitor article. At the urging of the EPA, BP reduced its use of dispersants.

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On Thursday, May 27, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told a House subcommittee that BP used less than 12,000 gallons of dispersants the day before, down from 70,000 gallons four days prior. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of the Energy and Environmental Subcommittee, noted that “The effect of long-term use of dispersants on the marine ecosystem has not been extensively studied, and we need to act with the utmost of caution.”

Dr. Robert Emery, vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told Business Week that “There’s no doubt that people are getting sick out there [in the Gulf of Mexico].” What remains is identifying exactly what is causing the symptoms.

Emery explains that one of the dispersants used after the Valdez oil spill in 1989 was limonene, known to cause symptoms of asthma as well as skin inflammation. Workers who participated in that cleanup also complained of flu-like symptoms.

Dr. Stuart Dobbs, chief quality and patient safety office at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, explained that “The hydrocarbons that compose the oil and the different components of the oil are all irritating to the skin and all are very aeromatically dispersed,” which means both the smell and the chemicals are in the air and can readily be inhaled by anyone in the area.

While the Gulf oil spill cleanup workers battle both the oil and the consequences of breathing in and being exposed to the oil and dispersants, it remains to be seen if and how these fumes will continue to impact the workers and potentially the citizens on the mainland as well.

Associated Press
Business Week, June 3, 2010
Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2010
Press Register, May 27, 2010