Blog post by LABB staff member, Anna Hrybyk, MPH
Two weeks ago, I returned to the BP worker compound in Grand Isle looking to get more information on what types of health issues workers were being treated for.
My first stop was the West Jefferson Medical Tent (WMJC), locally known as the “first aid tent” because that is all the nurses and EMTs are permitted to do. The nurse at the station said that the WMJC is only permitted to see military and parish personnel.
All workers under contract with BP must go to a privately contracted CARE EMS. While we were standing in the WMJC tent, a contractor came in about a worker who had open sores and blisters on his hands and forearms after having come into contact with the water. The doctor that saw him wanted this worker to be treated by the West Jeff staff, presumably because of their excellent reputation. However, much to the nurse’s discontent, she was bound by the protocol to refer the worker to the BP EMS even though his doctor referred him to the WMJC. She stated with a grimace on her face, “I have to follow this protocol. If I do not, I will go to medical prison.” According to her, contractors who know and trust the work of the WJMC are “livid” about this BP imposed protocol.
BP’s CARE EMS area is heavily guarded but we managed to speak with the EMTs on duty. They said they were creating detailed incident reports for every worker they see and those are getting sent to the Houma Unified Command Center. I have been chasing the Head Nurse at the Houma Command Center for weeks trying to get those reports. I am now going to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Coast Guard for their reports on worker health incidents.
On June 22nd and 23rd, the Institute of Medicine hosted Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop in New Orleans. Panelists were mostly academics from outside of the state discussing the potential adverse health effects for humans stemming from the oil spill. Most of the presentations presented inconclusive evidence of crude oil and chemical dispersant’s effects on humans. “Sound science” has often let us down in this regard; many in the environmental justice community feel that academic researchers have been bought off by the petrochemical industry. In fact a few of the presenters disclosed funding by the American Petroleum Institute and the petrochemical industry. While the bulk of the panelists had “nothing to disclose” a few did admit that while they personally did not take any funding from the industry their academic institutions did.
There were only a few presentations which actually did state that there were KNOWN short term and long term health impacts in oil spill clean up workers involved in various oil spills from around the world. The vast majority of researchers however continued to state that the long-term health impacts of the spill are as yet unknown and more research is needed. This seemed like an attempt on the part of the academic community to position themselves for oil spill research money surely making its way down the pipe.
Community representatives like us were relegated to the last half hour of the first day to give remarks limited to three minutes each. Questions were allowed for some panels, but not all, and had to be submitted anonymously. This created an uncomfortable separation between those who “know” and those who “need to know” to protect their health and the health of their children.
When the Louisiana state health officer stated that not much is known about long term health impacts of crude oil, I had to suppress the urge to scream “you have been dosing the people of Louisiana with toxic cocktails since the plantations were sold to the petrochemical industry. Since then, communities living on the fencelines of these industries have been begging for someone to tell them what this stuff does to them over the long term while suffering rare cancers, skin diseases and compromised respiratory function! Take a walk in the Istrouma neighborhood next to ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge and you will soon know a lot more than you seem to sitting up on that dais.”
BP does not want us to know the long term health impacts to preserve its own image, that actually makes sense to me. But state and federal “public health” agencies who make statements that the exposures workers and residents experience are “normal” because they simply do not know otherwise?
It brings us all back to the root of this problem. Chemicals policy in the U.S. There are over 80,000 chemicals in commerce in the United States. We only know what a handful of those chemicals do to you over the long term. The burden of proof is on us to prove that they are harming us. How can we ask someone who is seriously ill from chemical exposures to prove which company’s chemical made them that way? We must operationalize the “precautionary principle” now – companies must prove that the chemicals they are using are safe before they are allowed to put them into commerce.