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Health Effects After Exxon Valdez Went Unstudied

The Exxon Valdez disaster was a missed opportunity for answering questions about worker health now being asked in the Gulf. Both Exxon and the government say they haven't done research on long-term health problems among that spill's cleanup workers.

In a report on Tuesday, McClatchy Newspapers pointed out that neither industry nor the government seems to have studied the health of Exxon Valdez cleanup workers after the 1989 spill.

Since oil started pouring from BP's well into the Gulf of Mexico, there have been promises all around: promises from oil executives “to learn new lessons,” promises from the EPA  to remedy the dearth of science about dispersants -- promises addressing the same concerns that could have been studied decades ago after spills like Exxon's.

Here's what Exxon told McClatchy:

Exxon has consistently maintained that there's no evidence spill workers experienced any adverse health effects as a result of the cleanup. Spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said she isn't aware of any long-term study the company conducted on its own.

And here’s what government said:

Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said NIOSH hasn't done any research on long-term health effects on Exxon Valdez workers.

But many cleanup workers from Exxon Valdez — then, and even now — report health problems that they trace back to their work on that spill.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Merle Savage, a former Valdez cleanup foreman who told me that for two decades she has suffered lingering health problems much like the ones workers are now experiencing in the Gulf.

As we’ve noted, BP’s most recently released report of illnesses among Gulf cleanup workers (up to date through June 17) counted 307 illnesses. Neither BP nor the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command -- the working group of involved companies and federal agencies — appear to be recording the majority of these illnesses in a way that notes possible causes or chemical exposures.

The latest report from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, released this week, recorded 128 worker illnesses believed to be related to chemical exposure [PDF]. 

“Current scientific literature is inconclusive with regard to the potential hazards resulting from the spill,” U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said last week in New Orleans, at a meeting of health experts to discuss the protections for Gulf cleanup workers. (The comments were reported by Inside Science and McClatchy).

Another expert at the conference, a toxicologist from the University of A Corona in Spain, noted that the ecological consequences of spills are well documented, but historically there’s been a lack of health studies following these disasters.

Long-term studies were conducted on the health of rescue workers and firefighters after 9/11. Doctors who helped track those illnesses have urged the Obama administration to better protect Gulf workers, according to a report last week by McClatchy.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says on its website that it is working with NIOSH and the Department of Health and Human Services to “establish a long-term health surveillance program for the workers.” The Department of Health and Human Services has already set aside $10 million for that purpose.

Some independent scientists, however, remain concerned that the data will not be enough, and have raised concerns about the illness screening being conducted by a BP contractor.

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