Health risks in cleaning up oil spills are still a mystery

June 29, 2010 

You'd think that more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists would know what, if any, long-term health dangers face the thousands of workers needed to clean up the Gulf of Mexico spill.

You'd be wrong.

"We don't know a damn thing," said Anchorage lawyer Michael Schneider, whose firm talked with dozens of Alaska cleanup workers after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in preparation for a class-action lawsuit that never came.

In New Orleans last week, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin delivered a similar, more subtle message. Her audience: a gathering of health experts meeting to talk about how to protect people after the massive spill that is gushing as much as 60,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

"Current scientific literature is inconclusive with regard to the potential hazards resulting from the spill," Benjamin said. "Some scientists predict little or no toxic effect ... on humans or from exposure from oil or the dispersants, while other scientists express serious concerns about the potential short-term and long-term impacts the exposure to oil and dispersants could have on the health of responders and our communities."

That lack of published, peer-reviewed study has made protecting the growing number of workers in the Gulf of Mexico all the more difficult and has Alaska watchdogs warning that BP and government regulators are repeating mistakes that made people sick a generation ago.

"We don't have the good answers that we could have had from the Exxon Valdez to either know that there are problems or to reassure people that there were not," said Mark Catlin, an industrial hygienist who visited the cleanup in 1989 and says some Gulf workers aren't receiving enough training to protect themselves.

He was part of a Laborers International Union team of specialists who warned the state that spill workers could face lingering kidney and nervous system damage from prolonged exposure to oil.

The report, prepared at the invitation of the state Labor Department, called for long-term monitoring of worker health. Three of the contributors say it appears no one ever published a formal follow-up study.

The potential reasons range from the cost and complexity of such a review, to the paralyzing effect of subsequent court battles, to a lack of corporate or political will. Exxon didn't reveal internal medical reports that showed thousands of clinical visits for upper respiratory illnesses the summer of the spill, and government regulators didn't subpoena them.

In the years since, Alaska workers have reported ailments ranging from flu-like symptoms to chemical sensitivity to neurological damage.

Exxon has consistently maintained that there's no evidence spill workers experienced any adverse health effects as a result of the cleanup. Crowded living conditions were blamed for workers' flu-like symptoms -- the "Valdez crud" -- at the time.

Spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said she isn't aware of any long-term study the company conducted on its own. "The challenge is largely due to the fact that cleanup workers tended to be transient, temporary workers, which made any medical follow-up difficult," she said.

Catlin said many of the workers could have been tracked through their unions. Seldovia resident Sandee Elvsaas, who worked for cleanup contractor Veco Corp., said she watched as workers she sent to spray beaches and boats fouled by the Alaska spill returned from seven-day weeks and 12-hour days. They left happy, earning good wages and overtime. They came back sick and aching, she said.

"Terrible rashes and headaches and vomiting. They were nauseated ... These were not the same people I sent out," she said.

She still has names of workers who got sick.

"The people from the village are still here. ... We're here. They just haven't come to ask," Elvsaas said.


It wasn't just workers' bodies that were at risk.

A 1993 study conducted on the mental health fallout of the spill on workers and communities and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that people living in Alaska communities touched by the spill were more likely to suffer generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The results suggest that the oil spill's impact on the psychosocial environment was as significant as it's impact on the physical environment," researchers wrote.

Those findings caught the attention of health experts who met in New Orleans last week for a two-day Institute of Medicine workshop. But panelists lamented the lack of similar studies on physical ailments such as respiratory problems, Catlin said.

Riki Ott, a biologist, activist and fisherwoman from Cordova who has written two books about the Exxon Valdez spill, said her push for a multimillion-dollar federal study was rejected in 2005. Since the spill, Ott has been touring Gulf communities, speaking in towns and talking with workers and lawyers, she said.

"People are just still being told that it's not that bad and their senses are telling them something else when they're throwing up or when they have ear bleeds or nose bleeds or they have wicked sore throats," she said.

Ott cites an unpublished 2003 pilot study by a Yale graduate student that explored the link between exposure to oil and chemicals used in the cleanup, and respiratory problems among former Exxon Valdez spill workers.

The phone survey of 169 workers concluded that those who performed jobs with high oil exposure or reported exposure to oil mists, aerosol and fumes were more likely to report symptoms of chronic airway disease than workers with less exposure. Based on the findings, Ott has told Congress that roughly 3,000 former cleanup workers likely suffer spill-related illnesses.

Studies of other oil spills show similar trends.

A report on the 2002 oil tanker Prestige spill in Spain concluded that "participation in cleanup work of oil spills may result in prolonged respiratory symptoms that last one to two years after exposure," according to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

In 2008, Ott wrote Congress as the Supreme Court was hearing a case on punitive damages from the Alaska spill. Exposure to oily mist inhaled by workers conducting high-pressure, hot water washing had made Alaskans sick, she said.


Exxon's internal medical reports surfaced years after the spill in court documents, showing that an unspecified number of spill workers had made thousands of clinic visits for upper respiratory illnesses. Exxon later was successful in sealing the records.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had the legal authority to subpoena the company's records but never did so. The agency didn't have the staff to pursue the case, the deputy director of the division of safety research told the Daily News in 1999.

An assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health during the Carter administration, Eula Bingham, was part of the union team that visited the cleanup site in 1989 and warned of long-term health risks. She later said the state and the federal government should have been more aggressive in prying medical data from Exxon.

Today Bingham, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, says she worries about the apparent lack of a plan to protect volunteers from toxic exposure in the Gulf.

"I think there are community people going out and scooping up the tar balls and doing some work that probably will never get paid by anybody," she said. "Who is looking after them? Who is measuring how much exposure they have to these toxic chemicals?"

One thing regulators learned from the Exxon Valdez spill and health concerns raised after the World Trade Center cleanup is the need for a database of workers whose health can be tracked in the future, said Fred Blosser, spokesman for NIOSH.

"You need basically a way of knowing who was working at the site and information for contacting those workers over time," he said.

When BP chief executive Tony Hayward appeared before Congress on June 17, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., pressed Hayward on what he called BP's failure to provide a roster of spill workers despite multiple requests.

"The equivocation in your answer is something that is not reassuring to those workers ... who potentially have been exposed to these chemicals in ways that can impact on their health," Markey said, according to a transcript.

Blosser, the NIOSH spokesman, said BP provided worker information last week.

Basic worker health information could also play a role in future court cases against BP.


About 50 lawsuits were filed against Exxon over the Valdez spill, said Bergman. She said she didn't know how many were settled out of court, though a separate case involving insurance companies revealed one worker was paid $2 million.

Schneider, the Anchorage lawyer, said his firm interviewed dozens of workers after the spill. Erin Brockovich -- the environmental activist portrayed by Julia Roberts in a 2000 biopic -- had gotten involved. There was talk of a class action lawsuit.

"There wasn't a class of participants that stood up," Schneider said. "Just folks who had been around the project and the process -- many of whom had claims that they had became ill and stayed ill after working on the oil spill."

Most complained of respiratory problems, he said.

Ultimately the lack of independent proof, including a proper study of workers' health that could show the employees got sick directly because of the spill, scuttled the lawsuit.

"If you're the oil industry, you may or may not have this data. Lord knows, you're not going to want to publish it," Schneider said.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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