A ProMED-mail post
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International Society for Infectious Diseases
Date: Thu 3 Jun 2010
Source: The Associated Press (AP) [edited]
For days now, Dr Damon Dietrich has seen patients come through his
emergency room at West Jefferson Medical Center [Louisiana] with
similar symptoms: respiratory problems, headaches and nausea.
In the past week, 11 workers who have been out on the water cleaning
up oil from BP's blown-out well have been treated for what Dietrich
calls "a pattern of symptoms" that could have been caused by the
burning of crude oil, noxious fumes from the oil or the dispersants
dumped in the Gulf to break it up. All workers were treated and
"One person comes in, it could be multiple things," he said. "Eleven
people come in with these symptoms, it makes it incredibly suspicious."
Few studies have examined long-term health effects of oil exposure.
But some of the workers trolling Gulf Coast beaches and heading out
into the marshes and waters have complained about flu-like symptoms --
a similar complaint among crews deployed for the 1989 Exxon Valdez
spill in Alaska.
BP and US Coast Guard officials have said dehydration, heat, food
poisoning, or other unrelated factors may have caused the workers'
symptoms. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is
Brief contact with small amounts of light crude oil and dispersants
are not harmful. Swallowing small amounts of oil can cause an upset
stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea. Long-term exposure to dispersants,
however, can cause central nervous system problems, or do damage to
blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control
In the 6 weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11
workers, an estimated 21 million to 45 million gallons [95 million-170
million liters] of crude has poured into the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds
of BP contractors have fanned out along the Gulf, deploying boom,
spraying chemicals to break up the oil, picking up oil-soaked debris
and trying to keep the creeping slick out of the sensitive marshes and
away from the tourist-Mecca beaches.
A particular commercial fisherman spent a night on a vessel near the
source of the spill and left complaining of a severe headache, upset
stomach, and nose bleed. He was treated at the hospital, and sued --
becoming part of a class-action lawsuit filed last month [May 2010] in
US District Court in New Orleans against BP, Transocean, and their
This fisherman, who was part of a crew burning oil, believes planes
were spraying dispersant in the middle of the night -- something BP
"I began to ache all over ..." he said in the affidavit. "I was
completely unable to function at this point and feared that I was
seriously ill." Dozens of complaints, most from spill workers, have
been made related to oil exposure with the Louisiana Department of
Health and Hospitals, said spokeswoman Olivia Watkins, as well as with
the Louisiana Poison Center, clinics, and hospitals. Workers are being
told to follow federal guidelines that recommend anyone involved in
oil spill cleanup wear protective equipment such as gloves, safety
glasses, and clothing.
Michael J. Schneider, an attorney who decided against filing a
class-action lawsuit in the 1990s involving the Valdez workers, said
proving a link between oil exposure and health problems is very
difficult. "As a human being you listen to enough and you've got to
believe they're true," he said. "The problem is the science may not be
there to support them ... Many of the signs and symptoms these people
complained of are explainable for a dozen different reasons -- it's
certainly coincidental they all shared a reason in common."
Similar to the Valdez cleanup, there have been concerns in the Gulf
that workers aren't being supplied with enough protective gear.
Workers have been spotted in white jumpsuits, gloves, and booties but
no goggles or respirators.
"If they're out there getting lightheaded and dizzy every day then
obviously they ought to come in, and there should be respirators and
other equipment provided," said LuAnn White, director of the Tulane
Center for Applied Environmental Public Health. She added that most of
the volatile components that could sicken people generally evaporate
before the oil reaches shore.
BP PLC's chief operating officer Doug Suttles said reports of workers
getting sick are being investigated but noted that no one has
pinpointed the cause. Suttles said workers were being given "any
safety equipment" needed to do their jobs safely.
Unlike with Exxon Valdez, in the Gulf, the oil has been lighter, the
temperatures warm and humid, and there have been hundreds of thousands
of gallons of chemicals used to break up the oil.
Court records showed more than 6700 workers involved in the Exxon
Valdez clean up suffered respiratory problems which the company
attributed to a viral illness, not chemical poisoning.
Only one attorney representing a Valdez worker was known to
successfully settle with Exxon over health issues. According to the
terms of that confidential settlement, Exxon did not admit fault. This
attorney's client spent 4 months lifting workers in a crane for 18
hours a day as they sprayed the oil-slicked beaches with hot water,
which created an oily mist. Even though he had to wipe clean his
windshield twice a day, the worker said it never occurred to him that
the mixture might be harming his lungs.
Within weeks, he and others, who wore little to no protective gear,
were coughing and experiencing other symptoms that were eventually
nicknamed Valdez crud. Now 60, the worker cannot get through a short
conversation without coughing and gasping for breath like a drowning
man. He sometimes needs the help of a breathing machine and inhalers,
and has to be careful not to choke when he drinks and eats. Watching
the Gulf situation unfold, he says, makes him sick. "I just watch this
stuff everyday and know these people are on the very first rung on the
ladder and are going to go through a lot of misery," said the Valdez
worker, who now lives in Prescott, Arizona.
[Byline: Noaki Schwartz, Matthew Brown]
[The Gulf of Mexico is very different from Alaska and the Valdez
spill. The Gulf is hot and humid, which can take a toll on the body
before the conscious mind is aware of it. Dehydration is a large
factor, and can occur before a person is aware of it in hot and humid
environments. Symptoms of dehydration can include light-headedness and
dizziness, also fatigue.
In this kind of heat the volatile hydrocarbons [in the oil] would have
dissipated. Perhaps the issue is not the oil but the dispersants, as
noted by the CDC above.
Some smells are more offensive to some people [than others]. Oil and
saltwater and heat have a peculiar smell, and while offensive, it may
not in itself be harmful, but the perception combined with the heat
and dehydration may lead to a distorted picture. Likewise, it may be
the chemical dispersants associated with the smells, which may be even
more unpleasant. Workers spending much time in protective equipment
are even more susceptible to dehydration.
I do not know what chemicals or microbes are being used to cause
dispersion of the oil, so it is impossible for me to comment on those
factors. - Mod.TG]
[A lot hinges on the definition of "long-term exposure". - Mod.JW]
[The state of Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico can be seen on the
HealthMap/ProMED-mail interactive map at
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