Oil Spill Cleanup Workers Exposed to Significant Health Hazards
On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 50 miles southeast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and sending a massive oil spill the size of Puerto Rico into the Gulf of Mexico. Not only does the spill risk dangerous conditions to water and wildlife, cleanup workers, who work more than 8 hours a day for 7-14 days at a time, are also at a substantial risk of health effects because of exposure to toxins in the crude oil.
Contractor Wild Well Control has crews working on containing the spill with a “containment dome”. The workers are covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s standards 1910.120 and 1926.65 which require that workers be provided protective equipment and at least four hours of special training on hazards at the cleanup site. BP must provide this training.
During cleanup, environmental hazard risks include effects from the heat such as heat exhaustion, sunburn from UV exposure, drowning in the water due to a slip or fall, being bitten by wildlife, and dangers from the use of heavy equipment.
The oil itself also presents a significant health hazard. At a minimum, crude oil compounds can irritate the skin, leading to dermatitis or eye irritation. Inhalation of oil droplets and oil particles are also a health risk, leading to respiratory issues such as breathing difficulties and throat irritation. In addition, the Coast Guard is burning off oil on the water’s surface that produce a sooty, acrid smoke which can affect air quality.
Other health effects noted from workers at other oil spill cleanup sites, such as that of the Exxon Valdez, include headaches, dizziness, and back and leg pain,
Crude oil, a mixture of hydrocarbons, also contains carcinogenic volatile aromatic compounds such as benzene, toluene, and naphthalene. When oil is spilled into the ocean, about 20 to 40% of the oil slick evaporates into the air. A small percentage dissolves into the water.
There is no “safe” level of exposure to these compounds, according to the global environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance. A study of beach cleanup worker after a 2002 oil spill in Spain found an increase in DNA damage, but the long-term significance of the finding is not yet known. The body is thought to be able to repair the type of DNA damage found.
Mental health is also a concern for both workers and Gulf residents. In Alaska after the Valdez spill, exposed individuals were more likely to suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
So far, very little, if any, oil has reached land and public health agencies are monitoring the air quality, drinking water supplies, and seafood processing plants to assess potential health hazards for residents along the Gulf. Officials have also ordered a temporary moratorium on fishing in waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle.
"We don't know how long this spill will last or how much oil we'll be dealing with, so there's a lot of unknowns," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana's state health director. "But we're going to make things as safe as humanly possible."