Gulf oil fumes sicken workers, BP not concerned

Louisiana fisherman hired by BP to deploy boom and skim the growing oil mass in the Gulf of Mexico are getting sick. In the swamps and marshes in and around Batataria Bay, the fishermen-turned-BP employees working to contain the oil slick are reporting severe headaches, burning eyes, persistent coughs, sore throats, sinus congestion, dizziness and nausea.

BP is reportedly assuring these fishermen that they don’t need respirators and other protective gear when working the oil spill, which emits powerful hydrocarbon vapors, or the chemical oil dispersants that are being sprayed across the Gulf. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, has found that levels of airborne toxins in the Gulf such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene are exceeding safety standards for human exposure by a long shot.

According to Riki Ott, a Marine toxicologist and Exxon Valdez survivor who once fished the waters of Prince William Sound in Alaska before it was destroyed by oil, the experiences of the fishermen in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are starting to mirror the nightmares of the Alaskans hired by Exxon to clean up the Valdez spill.

“During the 1989 cleanup in Alaska, thousands of workers had what Exxon medical doctors called, ‘the Valdez Crud,’ and dismissed as simple colds and flu,” Ott writes.

“Fourteen years later, I followed the trail of sick workers through the maze of court records, congressional records, obituaries and media stories, and made hundreds of phone calls. I found a different story. As one former cleanup worker put it, ‘I thought I had the Valdez Crud in 1989. I didn’t think I’d have it for fourteen years.’”

Although Exxon’s clinical data shows that nearly 7,000 workers were afflicted with chemical induced respiratory illnesses, it did nothing to protect them from overexposure to the vapors and toxic substances they came into contact with every day during their cleanup efforts. Exxon never released the results of the air quality monitoring program it had contracted to Med-Tox.

Likewise, BP has not released the results of the air monitoring patches that its contracted fishermen wear when they glide out into the Gulf to battle the slick.

Will BP follow the same path out of liability that Exxon forged in 1989? When Exxon realized that the workers were victims of a “chemical poisoning epidemic” as one doctor called it, Exxon paid workers $600.50 to sign a form that effectively released the company from future health claims.

To read Riki Ott’s account of the people who fell victim to the Exxon Valdez spill and then again to the oil giant’s unethical disregard for their health and safety, click here.