by Eileen Senn, MS
Response workers know a great deal about how they have been potentially exposed to chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP Horizon Deepwater oil spill began on April 20, 2010. Valuable exposure information resides in workers’ knowledge of their daily experiences cleaning up the oil, drilling relief wells, transporting supplies, applying dispersant, burning oil, cleaning boom, operating vessels, and more. I suggest that workers write or otherwise permanently record their experiences while they are fresh in their memories. Workers should keep copies of their pay stubs, the names of their supervisors, locations where they worked each day, and the time period worked. These personal diaries will be valuable to the workers themselves, their families, health care providers, lawyers, and other allies, especially in the event they become ill months or years from now. Such information can provide a better understanding of the nature and duration of exposures, ranging from reassuring to alarming, and help guide appropriate responses. For example, workers who feel they have been significantly exposed could decide to have baseline medical tests or not to sign a waiver of their rights to bring a lawsuit in the future. Diaries can also help to prove exposure if seeking compensation.
Given the 200 million gallons of oil spilled, 10 million gallons of oil burned, and 2 million gallons of dispersant applied, chronic chemical illnesses among some Gulf workers seems likely. During the past 104+ days, at least 50,000 workers have responded in the Gulf, some for a few days, others for weeks and months. Most have been onshore doing beach cleanup and exposed primarily to weathered oil ranging from mousse to tarballs and perhaps dispersed oil washing up on some beaches and cleaning products used to remove oil. Many thousands, however, have been offshore close to crude oil, burning oil, dispersed oil, and dispersants. Chemicals from these can cause cancer, birth defects, permanent nerve damage, and damage to the liver, kidneys, respiratory, reproductive, blood, and immune systems. Many scientists believe there are no safe levels of exposure to chemicals that cause cancer.
Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done now about these needless chemical exposures except to ensure that workers who develop Gulf-related illnesses receive good medical treatment and fair compensation. Community-based groups in the Gulf can assist workers in preparing exposure diaries, perhaps providing them with forms or audio recording equipment or arranging for workers to interview each other using the list below. Workers should begin by documenting their worst exposure days closest to fresh oil, dispersed oil, burning oil, and dispersant applications from air and water. The following is a list of information relevant to exposure that should be recorded for each day.
*Date, employer and supervisor
*General location(s), whether onshore, nearshore, offshore, name of vessel, rig, floatel, etc.
*Degree of mobility, whether in one location or moving on the water, beach, vessel, rig, floatel, etc.
*Specific location(s) where the most time was spent, for example, which beach or which deck or room of a vessel or rig
*Hours worked including time started and stopped
*Off-duty hours in the spill area, for example, living on a rig, floatel, or vessel
*Job title and description including tasks performed especially activities that caused chemicals to become airborne such as blasting, cleaning, mopping, scraping, splashing, spraying, sweeping, wiping, etc.
*Tools, equipment, and machinery used
*Cleaning products used
*Estimated distances and whether upwind or downwind from chemical sources, including fresh oil, dispersed oil, burning oil, dispersant applications, and weathered oil
*Descriptions of chemical sources, for example, how thick the oil was, how weathered the oil was, how thick the smoke was from burning oil, and how it rose, drifted, dispersed, etc.
*Chemical odors noticed, how strong they were, what they smelled like, for example, oil, tar, smoke, rotten eggs, sewer gas, etc.; and odor descriptions such as pleasant, sweet, aromatic, fishy, putrid, minty, metallic, musky, pungent, etc.
*Short-term health effects experienced such as irritation to eyes, skin, and respiratory system; dizziness; rapid heart rate; headaches; tremors; or confusion
*Skin contact with chemicals, including contact with contaminated work surfaces, decks, hulls, anchors, boom, taglines, tools, equipment, machinery, etc.
*Area of skin contact in square inches on what part(s) of the body
*Skin problems experienced such as redness, rashes, burning, discoloration
*Chemical contact with eyes and any vision problems experienced
*Personal protective equipment (PPE) used, for example, for head, eyes, face, ears, hands, body, and feet
*How often PPE was replaced or decontaminated including how decontamination was performed
*Whether or not a respirator was worn and for how long, including whether it was worn continuously or off and on
*The specific type of respirator worn, for example, disposable dust mask or flexible facepiece with removable cartridges
*Color coding on respirator cartridges, for example, purple or magenta for particulate containing oil; black, yellow, or orange for organic vapors
*How often respirator cartridges were replaced
*Suspected chemical contamination inside gloves, shoes, clothing, or respirators whether from improper storage, improper decontamination, or other reason
*Suspected chemical contamination of food, beverages, gum, tobacco products, and cosmetics whether from contamination of eating surfaces, improper storage, or other reason
*Suspected chemical contamination of personal vehicle or home whether from dirty work clothing and shoes or other sources
*Access to sinks and showers for hand washing during work and showering at the end of the shift
*Access to emergency eyewash and shower
*Weather variables including temperature and humidity, rainfall, sunlight and cloud cover, wind speeds and direction, currents, tides, wave heights, etc.
*Anything else that seems relevant to chemical exposures
Eileen Senn is an industrial hygienist who has performed occupational health work for government and unions for 40 years. Eileen was an OSHA industrial hygiene inspector in Philadelphia for eight years in the 70s and 80s. She directed an OSHA New Directions training grant from 1979 to 1981. She worked in occupational health surveillance for the state of New Jersey from 1986 to 2002. Eileen has been an Independent consultant for the past eight years. She is perhaps best known for her seminal article, Playing Industrial Hygiene to Win