ExxonMobil insists the air in the area just outside the epicenter of its Mayflower, Arkansas, pipeline breach is safe to breathe. Public health advocates, however, warn that even very low levels of fumes from the oil spill can affect populations who are more vulnerable than Exxon’s average oil spill cleanup worker, for whom the air quality tests are set. And indeed a number of elderly people, children, and those with respiratory ailments are becoming ill from the ever-present petrochemical stench that has settled in their town.
Huffington Post reports that eight children from a Mayflower elementary school were sent home sick last week after becoming ill from breathing the fumes, which imbued the air in the school hallways and classrooms. School remained in session because Exxon’s outdated air quality tests showed the air was safe.
But April Lane, chair of school health and safety with the Faulkner County Concerned Citizens Advisory Group, told the Huffington Post those tests aren’t sensitive enough to detect levels of toxins that could harm many people.
“A lot of the released chemicals — benzene, hydrogen sulfide, toluene — are still extremely toxic, especially to children, the elderly and pregnant women, at very low levels,” Ms. Lane told the Huffington Post.
“Claiming that the air is okay is simply inappropriate and unsafe,” she added.
One Mayflower resident who lives on Lake Conway told the Huffington Post that the intense petrochemical smell woke her up in the middle of the night less than two days after the Exxon spill erupted.
“I couldn’t breathe. My throat and nose and eyes were burning really bad,” Sherry Appleman told the Huffington Post. Her home was next to an evacuation zone — but next to a boggy area that had become saturated with the heavy tar sands oil. “I could smell that horrible smell. I got really scared.”
Ms. Appleman lived with a persistent sore throat, headaches, and stomach aches for nine days, but despite her concerns, Exxon wouldn’t give her any satisfactory answers about the spill, the noxious fumes, and the dead fish Exxon workers were skimming from Lake Conway in the middle of the night.
In paperwork filed with the Environmental Protection Agency after its Pegasus pipeline ruptured, Exxon said oil that spilled into a suburban neighborhood and the surrounding wetlands contained a hydrocarbon dilutent, benzene, and hydrogen sulphide.
The paperwork says that casual exposure to these substances may “cause irritation of eyes, nose and throat, dizziness and drowsiness. Contact with skin may cause irritation and possibly dermatitis. Contact of liquid with eyes may cause severe irritation/burns.”
Exposure to the chemicals over a longer period of time presents more serious dangers.
“Due to presence of benzene, long term exposure may increase the risk of anemia and leukemia. Repeated skin contact may increase the risk of skin cancer.” The paper also acknowledges the potential to cause cancer, cause infertility, interrupt fetal development, and mutate cells.
Dr. Michael Harbut, chief of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, told the Huffington Post he sees Arkansas officials making the same mistakes Michigan officials made after another pipeline breach spilled millions of gallons of diluted bitumen tar sand oil into the Kalamazoo River.
Dr. Harbut treated patients in the aftermath of the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill, which polluted Michigan’s land and waterways with heavy, hard-to-clean tar sands oil. “Some people developed problems within a couple weeks. Others got sick several months later,” he told the Huffington Post. Symptoms included respiratory distress, immune system problems, and memory loss. “It’s too soon to see the cancers,” he told Huffington Post. “Those tend to occur 20 or 30 years after exposure.”
Because the type of tar sands oil is thick and sticky and treated with about a thousand different highly toxic chemicals, it is notoriously difficult to clean from lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water where it can settle undetected for decades, causing problems for humans and wildlife for decades to come.