by Brad Jacobson
November 5, 2010
Severe headaches, nausea,
respiratory problems, burning eyes and throat, earache
and chest pains - and that's just the beginning.
BP's stock has already bounced back. The media has mostly moved on.
But the long-term health impacts on Gulf Coast residents from the
catastrophic oil spill are only beginning.
Exhibit A, says chemist Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental
Action Network, is a recent evaluation she performed of blood sample
analyses from eight BP cleanup workers and residents in Alabama and
Originally collected on four separate dates throughout August, all
the blood samples - from three females, age 44, 46 and 51, and five
males, age 30, 46, 48, 51 and 59 - contained dangerously high
levels of volatile organic chemicals found in BP crude oil,
including Ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene and Hexane, Subra explained
during a wide-ranging interview with Alternet.
She clarified that the subjects whose blood was analyzed had been
exposed to the oil for at least three full months before samples
were collected on August 2, 3, 12 and 18.
Testing for the same chemical markers, Subra hunted down BP's crude
fingerprints out in the field all along the coast, in Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's panhandle.
"I've found there's still huge
amounts of BP crude oil on the sediment soils, in the wetlands,
on the vegetation, and in the tissue in the oysters, crabs and
The acute health impacts of these
chemicals include severe headaches, nausea, respiratory problems,
burning eyes and throat, earache and chest pains.
Subra, who is also a microbiologist and the recipient of a 1999
MacArthur Fellows "genius grant" for her environmental work, pointed
out that coastal residents have already entered an early phase of
long-term exposure, where they're experiencing chronic effects such
as liver, kidney and central nervous system damage, decreased lung
function and heart disease.
"A whole host of different kinds of
cancers" can follow, she added, including cancer of the lungs,
liver, kidneys and blood.
The original analysis of these blood
samples, which was performed by Metametrix Clinical Laboratory in
Pensacola, Florida, wasn't evaluated for chemicals found in the
dispersants used by BP. But Subra said those dispersant chemicals
have many similar acute and long-term impacts.
Contrary to rosy statements by BP and
Obama administration officials
about the Gulf's swift restoration, her prognosis for those sickened
by the oil spill is grim.
"The people that are sick are going
to be sick for the rest of their lives," Subra said. "This isn't
just a short time that they're sick and then they'll get well.
These issues are long-term chronic health impacts that will
She pointed out that 21 years after the
Exxon Valdez oil spill, people in Alaska are still experiencing
related health issues today.
BP has seen all of Subra's findings but hasn't responded.
"I've sent them the data," she said,
"but I didn't really expect them to respond."
How They Got
In her meetings with coastal residents, cleanup workers and
volunteer health care providers, Subra has seen firsthand the
devastating effects of the mix of oil and dispersants on the health
of vulnerable populations.
She explained that many people have become sick through contact with
these chemicals while working to clean up the oil spill and blames
BP directly for not only failing to provide proper protective gear,
such as respirators, but also threatening to fire cleanup workers if
they wore them.
"The Louisiana Environmental Network
[LEAN] actually provided protective gear and respirators," said
Subra. "But the fishing community was told, 'If you wear the
respirator, you're fired.'"
The workers, many of whom were fishermen
who had joined the cleanup to earn money after the waters were
despoiled and closed by the spill, had to choose between supporting
their families or protecting themselves from chemicals found in the
oil and dispersants.
But these fishermen also had another prime incentive to get those BP
"They desperately wanted those
cleanup jobs to protect their natural resource, their estuaries
and marshes," Subra noted. "So they thought that if they got out
there to put out enough booms and do enough skimming that they
would protect it enough that the resource would be there."
As a consequence, they've been made ill
but most are too frightened to speak out because they're afraid to
lose their jobs.
"Their wives spoke out early on and
they were told if their wives continued to speak out they'd be
fired, or if they spoke they'd be fired," said Subra, adding
that, for this reason, LEAN had stepped in to help voice the
concerns of the fishing community.
According to all the reports she's
received, she confirmed that BP officials and BP contractors, not
federal officials, leveled these threats against cleanup workers
attempting to wear adequate protective gear or speaking publicly
about the related health effects.
While BP's cleanup in the Gulf is winding down and many workers have
already been laid off, a lot of them are still out there and this
practice continues today, said Subra.
"So right now, the ones that are
continuing to work out there are provided gloves and bootie
covers or feet covers and that's it. No adequate protective
gear, no respirators."
"And they're just getting full of
oil as they work. Routes of exposure are inhalation, ingestion
and skin contact. And they're exposed to that every single day,
the whole time they're out there."
But some coastal residents not involved
in the cleanup have also been sickened by the oil and dispersants.
Even before the slick began moving inshore, Subra explained, many
people were exposed to the aerosol formed when the crude was pushed
up into the air by high winds and heavy seas.
As the dispersants began being applied, they mixed into this aerosol
as well, followed then by the toxic brew of the controlled burns of
oil on the water, all of which drifted to populations along the
"A huge number of people on the
coast were exposed to this aerosol," Subra said, adding that
this issue has received even less attention than the health
impact to the cleanup workers.
Unfolds, Little Relief in Sight
Subra, who has worked on these types of issues for 40 years on
behalf of communities and victims, is appalled at the lack of health
care sickened cleanup workers and coastal residents have received so
She noted the irony that the National Institute of Environmental
Health Sciences (NIEHS) has begun a comprehensive health-tracking
program that plans to monitor the related health impacts from the
spill and cleanup of 75,000 workers and volunteers.
Aside from the fact that this study will take a very long time to
complete and thus data will not be readily available, it does not
address the immediate or even longer-term health needs of those who
have been sickened.
"The program itself is not going to
provide medical care," explained Subra. "It's going to provide
long-term monitoring of these people who are sick, but not
'here's a doctor you can go to deal with this situation.'"
What's more, the study will not include
the large swath of residents along the coast who were affected by
the toxic aerosol but who weren't involved in the cleanup.
"That population will not be
monitored at all by the NIEHS study," she said.
Meanwhile, in addition to their health
issues, many of the fishermen have lost their ability to earn a
"They don't know whether they're
going to have a job fishing or shrimping or crabbing in the next
year or how many years they won't have a livelihood," Subra
As a consequence, she is seeing a spike
in depression developing in these communities, including a number of
suicides, and more and more coastal residents under suicide watch.
BP's $20 billion compensation fund?
Subra finds it "inadequate," pointing out that those who worked for
BP during the cleanup are supposed to have their earnings subtracted
from whatever compensation they wind up receiving.
For that reason, she's certain the money leftover won't be nearly
enough to address their lost wages and livelihood as well as their
related health problems.
Besides, Subra concluded,
"No amount of money can make up for