Oil Spill Cleanup Workers Face Health Risks

Reader Contribution by Michelle Martin

Hundreds of Gulf Coast oil spill workers are falling ill. On the surface, their symptoms resemble the flu (headaches, nausea, coughing, vomiting), but these illnesses are eerily similar to the health problems that thousands of Exxon-Valdez cleanup employees encountered in 1989. Hundreds suffered severe health consequences, even years after the spill. Those who experience oil-related illnesses can suffer respiratory and nervous system issues that can haunt workers for years afterward before culminating in an early death. Reports from down south have indicated that BP is not providing the necessary safety equipment to shield Gulf Coast workers from a similar fate.

In the Exxon-Valdez spill, some workers lost much of their breathing capacity and suffered from memory loss and various cancers. In fact, the average lifespan of an Exxon-Valdez worker was 51 years, according to a CNN report. About two dozen former workers filed health lawsuits against Exxon. Seven settled out of court — one received $2 million — and eight were dismissed by judges.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals released a report last month stating that 162 workers had fallen ill with symptoms related to the oil or chemical dispersants, and a Pensacola news source stated that more than 400 have sought medical attention for nausea, eye irritation, headaches and respiratory issues. Business Insider called the collection of chemicals and pollutants in the Gulf a “‘toxic soup’ of oil, methane, benzene, hydrogen sulfide, other toxic gases and very poisonous chemical dispersants.” The EPA has recently declared that some areas along the Gulf Coast pose a health risk to vulnerable people.

Although short-term oil exposure is relatively safe, close long-term exposure can cause oracular, neural and dermatological damage. However, the long-term data on health risks simply is not sufficient for us to conclusively know exactly what the effects are. Of more than 400 oil spills since the 1960s, only seven were ever studied for health effects. Workers at the highest risk were exposed to oil for more than 20 days and worked closely with it in highly polluted areas. 

Various news sources have questioned whether or not BP is providing proper protective equipment to cleanup workers. Though BP says workers who need safety gear will get it, BP spokesman Graham MacEwen told Yahoo! News, “We haven’t provided respirators or masksbecause all the environmental data shows the air is safe.” An MSNBC story reported that cleanup workers were threatened with losing their jobs if they wore respirators.

A coalition called BP Makes Me Sick has a petition you can sign to stop BP from blocking respirators from workers.