By Elizabeth Grossman
“All the data shows no toxic air concentrations from the oil spill where work is being performed,” is what OSHA spokesperson Jason Surbey told me on Friday, May 21st.
But on the afternoon of May 26th, after crew members of three “vessels of opportunity” working in the Breton Sound area of the Gulf reported experiencing nausea, dizziness, headaches, and chest pains – and one was medevaced by air to West Jefferson Hospital in Marrero, Louisiana and two others taken to the same hospital by ambulance – the Unified Command recalled all vessels of opportunity working in that area. Medical personnel were then sent to evaluate other responders working on the water in Breton Sound.
“What’s been difficult from the human health point of view is that it’s been difficult to characterize the different constituents in the crude oil,” said NIEHS Worker Education Training Program director Chip Hughes during a May 25th Partnerships for Environmental Public Health update on the Gulf oil spill response. In other words, whether it’s gooey liquid oil, the emulsified oil known as mousse, weathered crude or tar balls, we don’t know exactly what people are being exposed to in terms of toxic volatile chemicals.
“There’s tremendous concern about the nature of the exposures going on right now given what we don’t know about the constituents of the crude,” said Hughes, whose presentation included a photograph of a response worker’s hands drenched in red-brown liquid oil.
“Our guys said they’d be bringing their own masks when they go back out to work,” said Beverly Wright during the PEPH presentation. Wright is director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, which has a jobs training institute whose members are now doing shoreline cleanup and containment.
When I asked OSHA about the source of the exposure monitoring data that led to the “no toxics air concentrations” assessment, Surbey told me that OSHA has been reviewing “exposure monitoring plans and the monitoring results for response workers conducted by BP and third-party industrial hygiene contractors.” The contractor providing this data, OSHA said, is a for-profit Arkansas-based toxicology and environmental consulting firm called the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH).
CTEH performed air quality monitoring for the Tennessee Valley Authority after the disastrous Kingston, Tennessee coal ash pond collapse last year – work that was criticized for shortcomings both by affected community members and in an EPA audit. On behalf of the Chinese drywall manufacturer Knauf CTEH performed some of the initial toxicity testing on the problematic Chinese drywall sold in the U.S., testing that found no health risks associated with the product. Relying on toxicity testing provided by a contractor hired by the responsible party raises obvious questions of conflict of interest. Such questions have already been raised during the Deepwater Horizon response with regard to the contractor providing water, sediment and marine animal tissue testing.
During the May 25th PEPH meeting it was reported that OSHA had begun vessel worker monitoring on the 24th and will be posting results on the agency website. But how will this data be used? Whose data will be used for decision making, OSHA’s or the BP contractor’s?
Meanwhile OSHA has not yet responded to the following questions:
- Are any clean-up and containment workers or other responders wearing personal air sampling monitors or pumps? Have any agreed to wear dermal patches to monitor for dermal exposures? (Dermal exposures are a crude oil and petroleum product health hazard.)
- When OSHA says “no toxic air concentrations,” what does that mean? How is toxic being defined? What exposure standards are being used? (OSHA, NIOSH, AGCIH, or something else?) Exposure sampling posted by BP for sampling through May 19th shows elevated levels of hydrocarbons. EPA’s air monitoring data through May 21st shows levels of benzene, naphthalene, and toluene above the OSHA reporting limit.
- Current OSHA-outlined training requirements for Vessels of Opportunity responders say “Contract Supervisors of those who will have direct contact with petroleum for vessel operations” must have “40-hour HAZWOPER training.” Other crew who are “contractors conducting work cleaning up spill-contaminated shoreline and vessel operations” need only a 4-hour training now being handled by a company called PEC, a BP contractor. For practical purposes, how does the work of “Contract Supervisors of those who will have direct contact with petroleum” and “contractors conducting work cleaning up contaminated shoreline and vessel operations” differ when there is now heavy oil washing ashore?
- Does the 4-hour training include training on respiratory hazards? OSHA’s safety sheet does not mention them although basic OSHA oil spill response hazard information does. OSHA said that the agency is conducting on-site observations and interviews of workers in response staging areas, including vessel crews for oversight and monitoring purposes.
- Is OSHA verifying reports of workers being denied requests for respiratory protection?
Meanwhile on May 27th, the Unified Incident Command reported that the Centers for Disease Control would be conducting medical and health surveillance in Gulf Coast communities. During the PEPH meeting Beverly Wright and John Ward, Director of the Division of Environmental Toxicology and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, reported health concerns related to the stress Gulf communities are experiencing – both physical and mental.
And the oil keeps on coming. On May 27th, the “Flow Rate Group” led by USGS director Marcia McNutt, announced its estimate of oil flow: between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels but perhaps has much as 25,000 barrels per day, depending on method of estimation. BP’s estimate has been 5,000 barrels per day.
“This area was affected by hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, and there’s a despair that sets in. Those were natural disasters with a lack of preparedness. Now we have a manmade disaster with a lack of preparedness,” said Ward.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.