by Elizabeth Grossman

As of Saturday afternoon, May 29th, ten oil spill clean-up workers had been admitted to West Jefferson Medical Center (WJMC) in Marrero, Louisiana. All but two have been hospitalized suffering from chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. One crewmember admitted on the 29th had fallen and hit his head on a stair after wave mixed with oil had washed onto a deck, hospital spokesperson Taslin Alonzo told me about three hours after two workers were admitted Saturday. The other, who was working on what Alonzo called “an oil rig,” was suffering from hypertension. All crewmembers hospitalized have long experience working on the water, said Alonzo.

The two crewmembers hospitalized on May 28th had been working on the water about an hour south of Venice, Louisiana near where oil burns have been conducted, said Alonzo. The workers complained of breathing fumes from oil burning the day before, she told me. They also believed they’d been sprayed with chemical dispersant.

Emergency room doctors thought these symptoms could result from dehydration, said Alonzo. “They’ve been out working 20 to 30 days,” in a row, she said. But the thought was, said Alonzo, that symptoms were caused by some kind of chemical irritant. When asked if the hospital tested incoming cases like these for evidence of chemical exposure, Alonzo told me that it doesn’t. “We just treat the symptoms,” she said.


As of Sunday morning May 30th, the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center (JIC) has issued no notice of the response workers hospitalized on the 29th. But the JIC announced via press release on the evening of the 28th that two crewmen from two controlled burn fleet vessels were being medevaced after experiencing chest pains.

“At the time of the medical emergencies, there were no controlled burning of oil being conducted. The two vessels were actively searching for oil concentrations for future burns….Aerial dispersants have been used in the area of the burn fleet, but as per safety restrictions, no dispersants are deployed within two miles of any vessel or platform,” says the JIC press release.

Yet at a May 28th press briefing, BP COO Doug Sutttles announced that thirteen controlled burns had taken place that day. And according to the JIC, between May 26 and 29, total dispersant use increased from more than 840,000 to 910,000 gallons – over 30,000 of which were applied on the surface.

When I called the JIC on the 29th for further details of the medical evacuation, BP spokesperson John Curry told me, “No one had been medevac’d on Friday” and that “no helicopter was involved.” But West Jefferson Medical Center spokesperson Alonzo emailed me shortly thereafter saying of the oil spill responders hospitalized Friday, “They were brought by helicopter.”

When asked about the number and location of controlled burns, Curry told me only one burn had been conducted on the 28th. When I said Suttles had reported a different number, Curry replied by saying, “Seven?” When I told him the number was thirteen and that I’d checked my notes against the video of the briefing, Curry said to “go” with that number. Asked if there is an accurate tally of controlled burns Curry referred me to the Deepwater Horizon response website “Current Operations” page. But there is no controlled burn information listed.

The burns, Curry explained, are being conducted near the Deewater Horizon drill rig site – about 40 miles southeast of Venice – where the greatest concentration of oil is. “You can only do burns where there’s the greatest concentration of oil,” said Curry.

If the workers who were taken ill on the 28th were scouting sites for future burns, they would have been in the vicinity of both heavy oil concentration and of previous burns – including those conducted that day.

Crude oil contains a mixture of volatile hydrocarbon compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that typically include benzene, toluene, and xylene. Symptoms of exposure to these petroleum compounds include dizziness, headaches, nausea, and rapid heat beat. Kerosene – a component of the dispersants being used in the Gulf – exposure causes similar symptoms.

At a press briefing about the May 26th medical evacuation of seven crewmembers from Vessels of Opportunity working in the Breton Sound area, Coast Guard Captain Meredith Austin, Unified Command Deputy Incident Commander in Houma, LA, said that air monitoring done in advance of beginning work showed no volatile organic compounds “above limits of concern.”

“We would not have had vessels in the area if we didn’t think that the levels were safe for people to be in. And our toxicologists have said that it’s possible that just by being around the odor of petroleum, for some individuals, are sensitive to it and can give them similar symptoms without there being a chemical overexposure,” said Austin.

No respiratory protection was issued, said Austin “because air ratings were taken and there were no values found to be at an unsafe level, prior to us sending them in there.”

As a precaution, all Vessels of Opportunity working in Breton Sound were recalled after the 26th medical emergency – a measure still in place on the 28th. A health assessment of 125 people working in that area is now being conducted as is environmental sampling – neither of which had been done before. On May 30th, Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) will be sending mobile clinics to Venice and West Jefferson Medical Center will be sending a mobile EMS unit to Grand Isle, Louisiana.

As a new measure, BP will be adding a safety boat and a monitoring boat to each team of boats operating in the Gulf.

BP’s efforts to plug the oil well with drilling mud have failed. Next up is a maneuver that is likely to initially increase the flow of oil. Responders are being moved closer to the front line of the spill, with hundreds to be housed in “flotels” and tent sites. As of Saturday afternoon, the two crewmembers admitted on May 28th were still in the hospital as were those admitted on the 29th.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Chang
    May 30, 2010

    Moderate respiratory exposure to 2-butoxyethanol often results in irritation of mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat. Heavy exposure via respiratory, dermal or oral routes can lead to hypotension, metabolic acidosis, hemolysis, pulmonary edema and coma.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2-Butoxyethanol

    Oil spills at sea are generally much more damaging than those on land, since they can spread for hundreds of nautical miles in a thin oil slick which can cover beaches with a thin coating of oil. This can kill sea birds, mammals, shellfish and other organisms it coats. Oil spills on land are more readily containable if a makeshift earth dam can be rapidly bulldozed around the spill site before most of the oil escapes, and land animals can avoid the oil more easily.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum#Environmental_effects

  2. #2 Johnny
    May 30, 2010

    Like I have been saying you have to cut the pipe and have two new ends with oil coming out. Now you will need a Tee with male ends on the three ends. But now you need closing valves on two of the three ends. The end with no valve will go into the pipe first with the valves open. Cause if they are close it will shoot the Tee out so they have to be open. Ok now when you put the end with no valve in you have to clamp it down on the out side and lock it in with that clamp. Now the valve across from the clamp you close but its ok cause the other one is facing up with that valve open so the oil can still run out and up. Now you add new pipe from the Tee wheres the valve is at to the other end of pipe and clamp down the two ends. Then open the closed valve and close the open one and let the oil run like it should. But now if you have oil coming out the the other end of the pipe that was cut then you have to use a Tee on that end also and do everything in reverse and then you will have to add new pipe from Tee to Tee. Trust me it will work its happen to me before not as big but same thing.

  3. #3 Eddie Fernandez
    May 30, 2010

    I believe that trying to cap this leak is the problem, and they should be thinking about sliding something a cap over it instead of trying to cap it form top is this feasible. Is there a way to have ships or ship pull something over it?

  4. #4 Frank Mirer
    May 30, 2010

    Need is for common review of each of these exposure related cases – that’s what CDC is for. Instead of “safe” should be saying where the concentrations are in relation to standards or reference concentrations.

  5. #5 stigger
    May 30, 2010

    Yes, the Gulf Oil (BP) spill is terrible but this has been going on for a long time and gets no publicity. Why?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell?CMP=AFCYAH

  6. #6 yogi-one
    May 30, 2010

    So BP cannot shut it down. OK, in two months MAYBE they’ll have the solution.

    So then they send in people without safety equipment to protect them from fumes, saying the air levels were safe.

    WTF? It’s an oil spill, idiots, you aren’t sending people in there because it’s safe. You’re sending them in there because its toxic, and they are the cleanup crew

    I guess that was yet another “money-saving” device that those ever-so-thrifty big corporations are always on the lookout for.

    So then BP lies to us about the med-evacs. And then they lie to us about the number of burns.

    Which was after they lied to us about how many leaks there actually are and how much oil was gushing into the gulf:

    Matt Simmons: “Theres another leak, much bigger, 5 to 6 miles away”.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDGAoU1H2gM&feature=player_embedded

    Which was after they lied to us about the effectiveness of their booming to keep the oil offshore:

    BP Fails Booming School 101
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6ZN6r5-1QE

    Which was after they lied to us about…oh, forget it.

    900 safety violations after the last BP explosion, which killed 15 workers in 2005, BP still gets to write their own ticket:

    BP Safety Record: 97% of the Worst Violations
    OSHA records show BP’s history of “flagrant” safety violations, including the failure to reform after the 2005 BP refinery explosion
    http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/bp-safety-record-0517#ixzz0oOV84OBl

    “This scares everybody.” uh-huh. Scared you won’t make a multi-million dollar bonus this year? Is that what you’re afraid of?

  7. #7 travc
    May 30, 2010

    Anyone have some baseline data for comparison?
    These absolute numbers are not all that useful.

    There are a lot of people involved in these efforts… enough that a small number of medical incidents are to be expected even if there were no excess risk from chemical exposure.

  8. #8 Deborah Blum
    June 1, 2010

    Great post -from your Scibling Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science, who is also looking at BP’s misinformation attempts. They’re not very good at it though. http://scienceblogs.com/speakeasyscience/2010/05/out_of_sight.php

  9. #9 JMarti
    June 1, 2010

    The fastest fix to this messy spill is to blow up the well casing and formations in order to collapse the downhole casing.A well with collapsed casing will stop flowing.It will also be easy to seal off anything that is left.An expert demolition team for the underwater explosive would be required to make this happen.

  10. #10 Jayanta
    June 2, 2010

    I made the following post before I saw JMarti’s post, similar kind of idea:

    We now have the government saying that the leak will continue till August. Or maybe even until the entire well has emptied itself.

    What exactly is the situation? A pipe has been drilled into the well, and now is gushing out oil into the ocean bed.

    Solution: Dig a shaft, say about a mile deep next to the pipe (shouldn’t take more than a few days to do). Detonate a very powerful bomb, maybe even a nuclear bomb. The oil will no longer have a clear path to the surface and the leak will stop.

  11. #11 Nadine Grady
    June 9, 2010

    It would be good if someone (OSHA? the hospitals? the workers comp carriers? NIOSH?) would arrange for urine testing of people working around the dispersants. The dispersant MSDSs show a fairly high % of 2-butoxyethanol — and there’s a BEI for same based on butoxyacetic acid (BAA) in end-of-shift urine samples. At least that might help determine if the non-specific symptoms are associated with higher absorbed doses of the dispersant.

  12. #12 Alexander
    October 25, 2011

    I can not imagine if it happened to me. Oil spills can result in various kinds of accident for the people surrounding areas. In my opinion if the oil spill at sea more dangerous than on land. This can cause a lot of animals die because of this incident. By the way, I hope you can share the continuation of this tragedy. Thank you

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