by LABB Program Manager, Anna Hrybyk, MPH
“We were in the hot zone all day today and the fumes were really strong. Now I have a terrible headache,” said an oil spill clean up worker who came to the West Jefferson Medical Center tent inside the BP worker compound in Grand Isle looking for some relief from his headaches. His headache is not unusual according to a new report from the Office of Public Health and reports to LABB’s Oil Spill Crisis Map. His headache is undoubtedly caused by working in the “hot zone,” a term used by workers for the areas of thick heavy oil.
The Louisiana State Office of Public Health released data yesterday from their Oil Spill Health Surveillance program tracking all acute health effects related to the BP Oil Drilling Disaster. The report found here relies on reports from hospital emergency departments, outpatient clinics, physician’s offices and the Louisiana Poison Control Center. From May 30 to June 5, 2010, 71 reports of health complaints related to exposure to pollutants from the oil spill received. Fifty reports came from among workers and 21 from the general population.
Sixty percent of the health complaints from workers stated that they were exposed to chemical dispersants. Seven of those reports came from workers busting oil sheen for two weeks. They stated that they were exposed to fumes from chemical dispersants causing nausea, headaches, burning throat and chest pains. Six out of the seven were hospitalized and an investigation from OPH is pending.
Out of the 71 reports of oil spill related illnesses, 79% of the reported health problems were related to irritation of the respiratory tract including nosebleeds, difficulty breathing and aggravation of existing asthma and respiratory illnesses. There were 26 reports of headaches related to exposure to pollutants from the oil spill.
From June 1st through June 3rd, 17 workers sought treatment at the West Jefferson medical center tent in Grand Isle for headaches, respiratory issues, insect bites, abrasions, and infections. Unfortunately, BP does not allow the medical center to keep on hand any antibiotics, antibiotic ointments, IVs, shots, or make any prescriptions even though they have that capability. The nurse on site was extremely upset by these constraints and worried that if these infections are left untreated that staff infections could easily develop. New reports from the WJMC’s tent say that the number of oil spill workers being treated for heat-related illnesses is on the rise; to date there have been 67 workers treated since May 31st.
Though the West Jefferson Medical Center’s medical treatment tent is a full service medical facility (they could perform surgeries if needed), all serious health issues must be sent to the BP EMS. The WJMC can only give out ibuprofen and band-aids. The WJMC has an Industrial Medicine doctor but he has not been “approved” to staff the site.
So if BP is calling the shots on treatment of exposed workers, will it surprise you to know that the only “official” worker exposure monitoring data that exists is on the BP page? According to BP’s industrial hygiene monitoring program, 21 workers have been exposed to benzene, 305 workers have been exposed to hydrocarbons, and 43 workers have been exposed to butoxethanol. Of course, they contend that the exposure levels to these hazardous cancer-causing toxins has been below OSHA safe standards. BP’s monitoring plan is frighteningly vague. We know they are monitoring workers in three areas: beach clean up, near shore skimming and booming operations, and offshore. We do not know exact coordinates of these sites or the toxic makeup of the oil they are handling.
OSHA only has jurisdiction over workers on shore to three miles out from the shore. All of the workers we encountered in Grand Isle were in Tyvek protective suits but were NOT wearing respirators or gloves. Last week, grassroots groups, including the LABB, from across the Gulf Coast have signed on to a letter requesting the Department of Labor and OSHA to require the use of respirators and to make information on worker health problems publicly available.
LABB’s Oil Spill Crisis Map has been tracking odor complaints and health effects related to the BP Oil disaster since May 1st, 2010. To date the map has received 203 odor reports (i.e., smells like kerosene, burning crayons, burning oil) and 69 health effects reports from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Thirty-eight people have reported headaches and 43 reports detailed experiences of lung tightness, nose and throat irritation as a result of exposure. Other exposure related symptoms reported on the map include nosebleeds, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, chest pains, and burning eyes.
The highest number of odor reports on the map come from the metro New Orleans area. On May 10, 2010, on a very bad petroleum smelling air day, we took a bucket air sample from the front steps of the LA Bucket Brigade office on Canal Street. The sample showed detectable, but low levels of n-Hexane and n-Heptane. Due to our lax policies around chemical safety in this country, not much is known about the long-term effects of exposure to these toxins, however it is known, according to ATSDR that both are neurotoxins that can cause serious damage to the upper respiratory tract if chronically exposed.
I have heard Coast Guard and LDEQ officials compare the risk of exposure as equivalent to what you experience while you are pumping gas at the gas station. Would you want your children playing at the gas station all day in a heat index ranging from 105 and 110 degrees?
More detailed and transparent monitoring of the air, water and personal exposure is needed. We here at the Bucket Brigade know from years of working with communities neighboring hazardous sites, the oil industry and their regulators that the most effective tool in catching “hot spot” samples is empowering residents to capture the sample themselves with the bucket. No other monitoring system will be effective because by the time the samplers have been called in, the wind direction has changed and you can no longer get a good sample of the worst of what people are being exposed to. We are working to get the buckets in the hands of trained residents throughout the Gulf Coast.