Chemical oil dispersants dumped in the Gulf of Mexico during BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill sickened thousands of cleanup workers exposed to them, a new study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) confirms.
For months and even years after BP tried to tame its massive oil spill with oil dispersants, many workers exposed to the chemicals complained of a multitude of symptoms, including cough, lung irritation, shortness of breath, burning eyes, memory loss, heart problems, bloody urine, liver damage, and a variety of skin disorders.
But because the effects the oil dispersants BP used to break up the oil spill have on human health had not been studied adequately, there was little understanding among physicians and public health authorities about the illnesses and how to treat them.
According to The Times-Picayune, the authors of the NIH study, who “make for the most prominent group of scientists to examine the human health effects of dispersants,” have determined there is a strong link between the chemicals and some of the reported symptoms.
Two dispersants made by Nalco Environmental Solutions – Corexit EC9500A and Corexit EC9527A – were sprayed from airplanes onto the surface of the Gulf. Other quantities were injected deep below the surface near the source of the oil leak. The use of these Corexit dispersants on such a large scale was unprecedented. While the dispersants had been tested for effectiveness and environmental impact, their potential effects on humans remained a mystery, despite BP’s assurances that the chemicals were safe.
“Potential exposure to either of the dispersants was significantly associated with all health outcomes at the time of the [oil spill response and cleanup], the NIH study found, noting that the strongest association was burning in the nose, throat, or lungs, tightness in chest, burning eyes, and skin irritations.
Some of those allegedly sickened by the dispersants saw their symptom subside after a three-year period, with only a small percentage of the study’s 31,000 subjects exhibiting symptoms more than three years after the oil spill response and cleanup.
“Some of them are continuing to not feel well, and we don’t know what factors are contributing to it,” National Institutes of Health scientist Linda Birnbaum said, according to The Times-Picayune.