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.