by Elizabeth Grossman
“The biggest thing we’re going to see in the next month or so is heat. The hottest months are ahead. There’s no shade on the water, on the beach or in the marshes. We’re going to see an increased amount of heat exhaustion and heatstroke,” Dr. James Callaghan, emergency room physician and vice president of hospital staff at the West Jefferson Medical Center (WJMC) in Marrero, Louisiana told me on Saturday morning June 12.
The hospital has admitted eight spill response workers thus far but, said Callaghan, “There are triage centers before they get here, so very few actually arrive.” Later in the day I visited one of those centers, the first aid tent set up by WJMC in Grand Isle.
The tent sits behind a chain link fence at the southern end of Grand Isle where BP clean up staging areas are located. The fenced off areas are guarded by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office personnel, one of whom asked for my ID, asked to verify who I was seeing at the first aid tent and escorted me in. The nurse on duty, Denise Bennett LPN, said that since the tent was established on May 31 it has treated some 60 to 70 people, mostly for minor cuts and abrasions, respiratory complaints and heat ailments.
The short term effects being seen are likely not significant, said Callaghan.
“What I think is more problematic,” he said, “is dispersant exposure and any long term effects.”
When discussing the heat, Callaghan – a Louisiana native and outdoorsman – explained that while many of the oil spill responders are local watermen, shrimpers work at night when shrimp surface, so do not typically spend long days in the day’s heat and sun. Oystermen work two to three hours at a time before breaking to move to another site, so they’re not habituated to the extended exposure of clean up work.
Many of the Vessels of Opportunity workers, Callaghan noted, may have health conditions that make them susceptible to what they’re experiencing during clean-up work. “The should be doing a better job of screening the people they hire,” said Callaghan.
“Simple first aid,” Bennett explained, is what they can administer. “We’re in the process of trying to get the site designated as a clinic,” she added. This, she said, would allow for more sophisticated on site treatment including the ability to prescribe medication. Emergency Medical Technicians from Jefferson Parish are on duty in the tent by as back-up for serious emergencies.
The WJMC first aid tent does not attend to BP personnel or any other oil spill responders contracted or sub-contracted through BP, said Bennett. She and the West Jefferson EMT on duty said that BP has its own first aid and EMS personnel. The WJMC first aid tent attends to government agency workers, volunteers, and other first responders not contracted through BP. When I asked if I might speak to BP medical personnel, the EMTs shook their heads and wished me luck. At the end of my visit, Bennett escorted me back to the sheriff’s station. It was not possible, I was told to speak with any BP personnel on site.
Later, I stopped by the Grand Isle Community Center where a 4-hour hazard training class was in progress and spoke to a BP spokesperson, who said he didn’t know how BP was handling on-site medical response. But BP spokesperson Mark Pregler later told me, “BP has separate medical facilities because we don’t want to over burden existing hospitals and to mitigate the burden on local occupational health and safety.”
On the beach at Grand Isle State Park clean up activity was winding up for the afternoon. About two dozen workers wearing, boots, gloves, and a variety of shade hats were using rakes and shovels to scrape bits of oil from the sand. Some large red brown patties of oil were clearly visible.
A long line of orange boom lay several yards from the water, roping off where clean up was going on. A pair of Coast Guard officers patrolling in a jeep cordially cautioned me from going beyond the boom.
When I asked the workers on break if anyone might be able to explain what they’d been doing that day or who they were working for all said, “We can’t comment.” “No comment.” “We can’t talk to you, we want to keep our jobs.” One of the women working, who another woman called “Granny,” appeared to be about 60 years old. When I approached the man I was told was their supervisor he too said, “I can’t comment.”
Piles of white plastic bags were piled waiting pick up. Others were already filling a dumpster. All bags appeared to contain only a small amount of debris. About half the workers were on break under a shade shelter. Others were stepping in small kiddy-pools to wash – presumably decontaminate – their boots. The work is clearly labor intensive.
This prompts a question also posed by Dr. Callaghan:
Why is this work being done manually in temperatures close to 100ºF instead of by a bulldozer that could scrape yards of beach and efficiently deposit collected debris?
The Coast Guard does not have an answer to this question nor does BP. But Dr. Callaghan has a theory. “It’s all for show. It’s a massive show of stupidity,” he said.
The state park parking lot was filled with port-a-potties, tables and chairs, and movable barricades. When I asked several people involved what event was taking place I was told, “No comment.” BP’s Pregler – and the Coast Guard – say no one has been told they can’t speak to news media and that no one has been threatened with termination if they do.
Two local women I met on the beach pier – from Grand Isle and Larose – told me that this is where response workers in Grand Isle were bussed in to be fed. The woman from Grand Isle told me that her brother, a shrimper, is working on the clean up. “After they spray the dispersants they move the boats around in the water to break up the oil,” she told me. His crew was given hardhats and life-preservers, she said. “How absurd is that,” she said. “They should be given respirators.”
She also told me that her brother said he’d heard psychiatrists are going to be in Grand Isle. “I think I’d like to talk to one when I get back,” she told me he’d said. “I cry every day,” she said.
BP has now released oil spill response injury and illness data from April 22-June 10 that includes 485 events requiring medical treatment, including 25 involved in a multiple-vehicle car accident. It does not include the deaths and injuries resulting from the Deepwater Horizon blowout itself or data for government employees. The descriptive log includes a few incidences of chest pain, dizziness, nausea and heat-related ailments but the summary is entirely categorized by body part and does not include a category for respiratory ailments.
The latest available BP exposure data shows elevated levels of hydrocarbon exposures but BP says in summary,
“The personal monitoring results shown graphically below, demonstrate that there are no significant exposures occurring.” And that “air sampling data indicates that the exposures of these workers to airborne concentrations of crude oil or dispersant chemicals of interest are below the occupational exposure limits.”
But, as George Washington University assistant research professor of public health Celeste Monforton and others point out, there are no OSHA permissible exposure limits set for hydrocarbon mixtures.
OSHA has also posted more exposure monitoring data but significant information gaps remain. We still don’t know the precise nature of samples tested. Units of measure are missing from some data, and we still don’t know if OSHA or any other federal agency is doing exposure monitoring of off-shore workers while off-shore, particularly in area of heavy oil being called the “hot zone.” I’ve been told that OSHA only has jurisdiction to 3 miles offshore but I have yet to have this confirmed by BP, the Coast Guard, or OSHA as all spokespeople contacted did not know.
As bad as things are now, the big fear is hurricanes. That said Callaghan, “would be an epic disaster.”
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.