ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Gov’t and BP Unresponsive on Requests for Data on Sick Cleanup Workers

Getting statistics on worker illness related to the Gulf oil spill is proving to be difficult, as federal agencies continually refer requests either to another federal agency or to BP.

When we asked for statistics on health complaints related to the Gulf spill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us to ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA has told us to ask BP. The Environmental Protection Agency recommended via e-mail that we contact someone at the Department of Homeland Security. When we called the EPA back to confirm that the agency is not itself keeping these statistics, the same spokeswoman who told us to ask elsewhere said, "I'd have to clarify on that. Let me check on that."

When we called the BP press office seeking statistics, BP spokesman Max McGahan confirmed the existence of the data:

"I inquired with my guys here and they've told me that there is a log, and that is kept by Unified Command, and it would be up to them whether they could provide that," McGahan told me.

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command -- a response center comprised of BP, Transocean, Halliburton, the Coast Guard and multiple federal agencies -- has not yet returned any of our calls requesting data.

What we do know so far is from state agencies:

In Louisiana, the state health agency has identified 71 health complaints that may be related to chemical exposure from the oil spill -- 50 from workers, 21 from the public. Eight workers were hospitalized briefly, but most had symptoms that cleared up quickly.

More than half of the reports were from people who were working offshore at the time of exposure. Workers who reported illness were doing a variety of cleanup activities, from deploying booms to burning to working on the oil rig, but a majority of the workers reported exposure to dispersants. The symptoms ranged from nosebleeds to nose, throat and eye irritation to cough and difficulty breathing to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, chest pain and headaches.

Fifteen cases of illness have been reported in Alabama, a state health officer told CNN.

A report by McClatchy published today cites a number of experts who say BP's plan to protect cleanup workers is simply inadequate, and exposes workers to "higher levels of toxic chemicals than generally accepted practices permit." From McClatchy:

The BP plan, known as the Offshore Air Monitoring Plan for Source Control, allows workers to stay in an area when vapors are at a level that's four times higher than accepted practice to prevent an explosion.

The Marine Spill Response Corp., an oil and gas industry organization, recommended lower levels in the mid-1990s, according to a document posted on OSHA's website.

In conversations with ProPublica, however, BP has maintained that its monitoring of the air offshore has found that workers' chemical exposure is within permissible levels by federal standards.

As we pointed out last week, that's also what Exxon Valdez cleanup workers were told in 1989. Many of them experienced health problems while cleaning up that oil spill, and some of those health effects have persisted until today. (Read our story of one former Valdez cleanup worker.)

We're still seeking statistics on the illness. In the meantime, it's worth scrolling through the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals document for a window into an issue of concern across the Gulf.

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