ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

More Reports of Illness Emerge Among Gulf Cleanup Workers

Fishermen hired by BP to help with the oil spill cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico are coming down sick with "severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing" after working long hours in oil- and dispersant-contaminated waters, according to the Los Angeles Times.

This follows a report we flagged on Tuesday about fishermen coming down sick. This one, done by a New Orleans TV station, told a similar story -- fishermen reported feeling "drugged and disoriented," "coughing up stuff," and feeling "weak."

Cleanup workers told the Times that they were not given protective equipment -- no gloves, no respirators. Here's BP's response on the issue, from the Times piece:

BP spokesman Graham McEwen said Tuesday he was unaware of any health complaints among cleanup workers, noting that the company had taken hundreds of samples of so-called volatile organic carbons, such as benzene, and all the levels were well within federal safety standards.

McEwen said the fishermen the company is training are not being deployed into areas that require respirators or breathing apparatus. Those who are working for BP laying booms or skimming oil are issued protective coveralls and gloves, he said.

Note that in that excerpt, BP said it took samples of the possible health risks to cleanup workers.

It has. But as we've pointed out, BP's not releasing that data to the public, and has shared it only with "legitimate interested parties," including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And when OSHA, a federal agency, was asked by McClatchy about releasing the data, it said the data was BP's, and "not ours to publish."

While there's no direct evidence that the illnesses are linked to BP's continued use of a dispersant called Corexit, as we've noted, this dispersant has been linked to human health problems in the past, and concerns about toxicity were enough to prompt the EPA -- after initially approving it -- to order BP to switch to a less toxic dispersant. BP has not done so yet.

One marine toxicologist and activist, Riki Ott, studied the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and told the Times that these illnesses emerging from the Gulf were "déjà vu ... What we saw with Exxon Valdez was a parallel track -- sick animals and sick people."

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