Despite a flood of information about the Gulf spill, there’s very little understanding of its impacts.
Deepwater Horizon Unified Command
After more than 100 days of disaster news stories, countless press conferences, and regular updates on government websites, we still have very little real understanding of the Deepwater Horizon blowout’s impacts – short- or long-term – on the ocean ecosystem, Gulf Coast communities, or response workers. Environmental-monitoring data released by federal agencies and BP, while copious, fails to answer the many questions prompted by reported health complaints. Compounding this dilemma is the fact that information is being actively withheld.
Here’s a reminder of what we’re grappling with: To date, more than 200 million gallons of petroleum have gushed from the ruptured well, oiling 650 miles of shoreline and closing fishing, at one time or another, in 88,522 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. To reduce the amount of oil making landfall, almost 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants – themselves petroleum products with unknown long-term environmental impacts – have been sprayed onto the surface of the water and applied underwater, an application unprecedented in scope. In addition, Coast Guard and BP contractors have conducted 411 surface burns, incinerating more than 11 million gallons of oil, another unprecedented number. While marine bacteria has decomposed some of the oil, the rest has simply been displaced, spread out into the water column or sent into the air.
It’s also important to remember that Gulf Coast communities are in unusually close proximity to the water, especially in bayou country. In southern Louisiana, water is front yard and backyard. Working boats line the omnipresent waterfront. “I’m on the water. The whole neighborhood is water,” Paul McIntyre, a fisherman from Buras, just north of Venice, Louisiana, told me when I was there in June. He had signed up for Deepwater Horizon response work and was still waiting to be called up. But he was worried about the health risks. “I don’t want to get too involved with the oil itself. I don’t want my kid spending the next twenty years taking care of me.”
Government agencies and BP have been telling fishermen that there’s no reason for such worries. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been monitoring air quality across the Gulf Coast while the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has collected data on the chemical exposure to workers engaged in cleanup on beaches, on boats offshore, and at staging and decontamination sites. BP has also publicly posted information about injury and illness to its workers, and those reports have been reviewed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). According to BP, in “the vast majority of cases there are no significant exposures to airborne concentrations of benzene, total hydrocarbons, or dispersant chemicals of interest.”
OSHA concurs. “To the extent we’ve been able to look into all cases and that NIOSH has, the majority have been heat-related,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor of Occupational Safety and Health, Jordan Barab. “That’s been the diagnosis and they’ve been treated by rehydrating people.” OSHA’s sampling is “representative,” Barab explained, meaning that it captures only a snapshot rather than the whole picture. Thus far, he said, “We haven’t seen much, if any, chemical exposures at all.”
Yet across the Gulf Coast, cleanup workers have continually complained of health problems. Dozens have reported – and been treated for – symptoms that include chest pains, headaches, dizziness, nausea, racing heartbeat, respiratory problems, and skin irritation, including open sores. More than 300 oil-related health complaints have been reported to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, more than 240 of these from response workers. As the oil well kept gushing, concern about toxic chemical exposure became a kind of background hum to anxious conversations happening throughout the region.
“I feel really funky when we are out there,” Dave Willman, captain of a skimming boat that had been pumping oiled water within five miles of the rig site since late April, told me in July. “When I wake up out there, my heart starts fluttering. I get an immediate headache when I come in contact with crude oil.”
“Everyone out there is coughing,” he continued. “People are spitting stuff up in the morning and you can feel your blood pressure. I’m 35 years old. I’m a healthy guy. But I don’t feel myself. I’m light-headed and get dizzy. I’m getting headaches and my eyes burn. I get mood swings and I can’t stop scratching. I don’t know how much longer this can go on before it has a detrimental effect.”
Willman’s symptoms aren’t unique. In May, ten oil spill response workers were medevacked to the West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, Louisiana after suffering chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and nausea not far from the rig site. Several complained of breathing oil fumes and unpleasant chemical odors. Some believed they’d been sprayed with chemical dispersants. All were treated and released, with initial diagnoses of heat-related illness and exacerbated pre-existing health conditions.
The headaches, dizziness, and skin itching are consistent with oil-vapor and solvent exposure, according to Dr. Rose Goldman, associate professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health. “But it’s a complex system,” she said of potential exposures out on the oiled waters of the Gulf. There are volatile organic compounds coming off the oil. There may be an oil and water mist mixture. If there’s burning nearby, workers will be exposed to smoke and particulates. “I can’t say which symptoms are associated with which exposure,” she explained, “but careful monitoring should be done so we can find out how best to protect these workers.”
In June, I stopped by West Jefferson Medical Center to speak with Dr. James Callaghan, an ER doctor and vice chief of staff for the hospital, who’d treated the response workers rushed there in May. He explained that their symptoms were consistent with chemical and heat exposure, and can be exacerbated by preexisting conditions. “The short-term effects are not that significant,” Dr. Callaghan told me. “What I think is more problematic are the long-term effects. We should be taking more precautions. This is not a sprint, but a marathon.”
Unfortunately, the gaps in what we need to know are largest when it comes to the issue of long-term effects of chemical exposure. Many of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with oil and dispersants being used can produce adverse health effects that may take years to manifest. This is true of direct exposure to these chemicals – some of which are carcinogens – and exposure via inhaled particulates or consumption of contaminated food or water. While government agencies have released a large volume of raw data, much of it lacks the details that would provide a real understanding of conditions in Gulf Coast communities. The explanations offered by officials are often confusing or contradictory.
“EPA’s air monitoring to date has found that air quality levels for ozone and particulates are normal on the Gulf coastline for this time of year and odor-causing pollutants associated with petroleum products are being found at low levels,” explained the agency website on July 25. According to the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control has reviewed this data and concluded that reported levels of some pollutants “may cause temporary eye, nose, or throat irritation, nausea, or headaches, but are not thought to be high enough to cause long-term harm. These effects should go away when levels go down or when a person leaves the area.”
But there’s no background data to compare new numbers to, although EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has called the Gulf’s general air quality “not healthy.”
A week after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, entertainer Rush Limbaugh suggested that environmentalists had caused the disaster in order to pass cap-and-trade legislation that wouldn’t include new offshore drilling or loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. A massive environmental disaster, on the eve of the fortieth Earth Day celebration, right before the planned introduction of the Senate climate bill – the timing, as Limbaugh noted, seemed too pat. And, in fact, toward the end of the failed Copenhagen climate talks last December, some despondent green campaigners privately confided to each other that they thought only a major disaster could build the public pressure to enact policies sufficiently ambitious to tackle global warming.
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Meanwhile, a response-worker training manual from the National Institute of Environmental Health and Safety (NIEHS) cautions: “Even if air sampling shows no detectable levels or very low levels of volatile organic compounds, there still may be health effects present.” The NIEHS manual also notes that safety standards do not always include the effects of skin contact, which in the case of oil products (including crude oil, dispersants, and “drilling mud”) can have serious impacts – dermatitis and, in some cases, conditions that lead to skin cancer.
Also, relying on detectable odor may not be the best way to gauge safe levels of hydrocarbon compounds, explained Amanda Hawes, an attorney and board member of Worksafe, a California-based NGO. For example, toluene and xylene have a detectable odor only at concentrations that already substantially exceed levels considered dangerous. Adding to concern is the fact that current safety standards for VOCs vary widely from agency to agency and – according to the latest science – are often not sufficiently protective. When I spoke to him in July, OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Barab called the existing personal exposure limits “totally inadequate.”
In addition to this kind of confusion, there’s the problem of information that is simply missing. In early June, NOAA conducted two low altitude air-sampling flights over the Deepwater Horizon site and found elevated concentrations of benzene, toluene, and other oil-related aromatic compounds. It also found large amounts of black carbon associated with the one controlled burn sampled. But no further analysis is yet available. So as of late July, there is no publicly available data about ongoing near-surface air quality close to the blowout site, where the heaviest oil concentrations have been skimmed and burned – conditions that affect scores of response workers.
BP has conducted its own offshore sampling for airborne particulates but has not released this information. NIOSH has encouraged BP to release that data, but it’s become clear that such findings are being withheld, not for scientific reasons but because of the inevitable lawsuits. “Most of the data being collected now is being collected for litigation,” Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the nonprofit Consortium for Ocean Leadership, told the audience at the Aspen Environment Forum, explaining that the major federal scientific response so far has focused on gathering data for the government’s case against BP. Thus, “much of the information obtained from research and monitoring will be tied up in the courts rather than being made publicly available and scrutinized,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Most data being collected now is for litigation.
The extent of BP’s information lockdown is remarkable. Nearly all of my calls to BP contractors – environmental service companies conducting response-worker training or environmental monitoring, and those hiring cleanup crews – have gone either unanswered or produced only information available online. Several questions put to state agencies were answered with, “If you find out, please let us know.”
Three months into this disaster, we still don’t know what, apart from heat, may be affecting response workers, many of whom have been out on the water for weeks at a time. We still don’t know if the oil and dispersants are affecting coastal residents’ air. We also don’t know if chemicals specific to dispersants have contaminated seafood, since there’s been no such testing. And now that the well is capped and surface oil is diminishing, many Gulf residents worry that, in a desire to revive business, authorities may issue premature bills of clean health.
“We’re concerned about what we think is a premature opening of state waters to fishing,” said Zack Carter of the Mobile-based South Bays Community Alliance. “We’ve heard from our folks in all three states – that will hurt them in the long run,” he said of the Gulf Coast fishing communities.
I experienced first-hand the confusion swirling around the disaster when, in June, I visited Louisiana’s Grand Isle State Park. The oil on the beach was easy to spot – rust-red, bathmat-sized blobs, ribbons, and tar balls. A line of bright orange boom lay in the sand. Up the beach, workers wearing safety vests and boots rested in the shade of a tent shelter. Others worked the oil blobs with rakes and shovels. Near the tent shelter – as I would see later in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – were piles of white garbage bags containing oil debris.
When I asked the workers if they could tell me what they had been doing, all replied:
“I can’t talk to you ma’am.”
“I want to keep my job.”
They pointed me to their supervisor, who was resting under the shade of the pier. He too said, “No comment,” as did the supervisor of a crew in the state park parking lot. No one warned me off the beach, but some Coast Guard officers told me not to cross the orange boom toward the water. At one point, away from active cleanup, I stepped over. No one paid any attention.
On the way back into town I passed a hand-painted sign that said, “We want our beach back.” Three months in, we’re no closer to knowing when that may happen.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. She last wrote for the Journal about conservation and climate change.