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Weekly Mulch: Dispersants Harm Gulf Spill Workers

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

BP’s relief wells are just short of sealing off the Macondo well, the epicenter of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For the Gulf community, this milestone might herald a sigh of mental relief. But clean-up workers are feeling the after-effects of working with oil and the chemical dispersants used to dispel it, and physical relief is still a ways off.

Symptoms include...

There are plenty of reports about the toll relief work is taking on Gulf Coast residents who stepped in to clean the oil off sea waters and beaches. Many of these workers, idled from their regular gigs by the BP spill, had little choice about taking on these jobs. Inter Press Service has a particularly wrenching description:

"I was with my friend Albert, and we were both slammed with exposure," Donny Mastler, a commercial fisherman told IPS. Mastler inhaled toxic chemicals he identified as dispersants, bubbling up white on the water’s surface.

Mastler’s symptoms began with watery eyes and a burning in his throat, he told IPS, but they worsened from there and included vomiting, discolored urine, sweating, and diarrhea.

As IPS reports, those are just some possible symptoms of exposure. Others include: "headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, dizziness, chest pains and tightness, irritation of eyes, nose, throat and lungs, difficulty breathing, respiratory system damage, skin irrigation and sensitisation, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, genetic damage and mutations, cardiac arrhythmia, and cardiovascular damage."

Health problems under-reported?

Reports of health problems began seeping out within the first weeks of the clean-up effort’s start. In some cases, BP has pushed back against the claim that these symptoms are tied to the oil or dispersants.

As Ms. Magazine reports, some workers, at least, feel they can’t speak up about the problems they’re encountering. Wilma Subra, a chemist, has been working on this issues, and as Ms. writes:

When Subra meets with the workers and their wives, they report health symptoms such as severe headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing and dizziness—but they are reluctant to report their symptoms to BP for fear that they will lose their jobs.

The lack of protection extends to the entire gulf. Subra explains how the dispersants spread the oil out over a much broader and deeper area. BP has not provided nearly enough protection from the toxic soup for marshes, wetlands and shores.

Holding BP accountable

How is this allowed? Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard writes that “the answer lies, in part, in the Toxic Substances Control Act, the 34-year-old law that governs the use of tens of thousands of hazardous chemicals. Under the act, companies don't have to prove that substances they release into the air or water are safe—or in most cases even reveal what's in their products.”

As Sheppard explains, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has some authority over the use of dispersant, but the criteria they use to judge the chemical focus on their effectiveness at dealing with oil and do not account for environmental or health effects. Ultimately, even the EPA doesn’t know much about the contents of the chemicals or their potential harmful effects. Sheppard continues:

The manufacturer insists that the products are no more dangerous than common household cleaners such as dish soap—little consolation given that many of the chemicals in those cleaners haven't been tested for safety, either. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged that the impacts of using dispersants underwater and in large volume are largely unknown—"I'm amazed by how little science there is on the issue," she told senators in May.

(Sheppard’s story is just one in an entire package from Mother Jones on the BP spill that's worth checking out in its entirety.)

Going forward

It’ll be better for everyone if people with symptoms like Mastler’s recover quickly. But as Raj Patel writes for The Nation, the “happily-ever-after stage of the gulf-spill story” is not to be believed:

Sadly, "if you can't see it, it's not there" isn't sound environmental science. Oil enters the food system far more rapidly as an invisible emulsion than as a rainbow slick. Scientists have already discovered the spill's signature inside crab larvae, though the consequences of mixing oil and dispersant with the gulf ecology is uncertain, and won't be fully known for generations.

And while the dispersants may be be damaging the health of Gulf Coast residents, they’re a boon to BP's health as a company, particularly its fiscal health. Patel, again:

By introducing Corexit [a dispersant] into the gulf, BP not only hid its mess, but sowed doubt over the full extent and effects of the damage. This ignorance is no accident—for BP, it's bliss. It makes it possible for BP to argue that it cannot be held accountable for those damages that were not directly related to the spill.

Happily ever after may still be years away for Gulf Coast residents. BP should not be allowed to escape to a fairy-tale land where it’s no longer responsible for the damage it caused.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

The Media Consortium, Contributing group
The Media Consortium is a network of the country’s leading independent journalism organizations, including Earth Island Journal, as well as several other outlets (click here for a full list). The Media Consortium is creating a solid cooperative infrastructure that will serve a 21st-century audience and offer a sustainable future for independent media. Millions of Americans are looking for honest, fair, and accurate journalism-We’re finding new ways to reach them.

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