A month after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, a small team of public health experts prepared a report identifying the potential health hazards and making strong recommendations for protective action for the cleanup workers.   The team included Eula Bingham, PhD (former OSHA chief), Matt Gillen (now at NIOSH), Mark Catlin (now at SIEU), Don Elisburg, and Jane Seegal.  The team had been assembled at the invitation of the Alaska Commissioner of Labor after concerns were expressed

“about whether the cleanup workers’ health and safety have been adequately protected.  Among other things, workers have been observed with oil-soaked clothing and with oil on their faces and hands.”

The report describes the physical, chemical and work organization hazards encountered by the 4,000 cleanup workers, from toxins in the oil and dispersing agents, long work hours in remote areas, to slippery surfaces and dangerous animals.  Many of the same hazards will be faced by emergency response and cleanup workers in the Gulf Coast tackling the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The team’s 1989 report continued:

“The concern is that the environmental disaster could turn into a pattern of serious human health and safety problems.  Skin contact and inhalation of crude oil or its vapors can cause dizziness, nausea and skin rashes in the short term.  Long-term risks include kidney and nervous system damage, and some cancers.

“…OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Standard (1910.120) applied to oil spills and petroleum products.  The standard requires at least 40 hours of training, special procedures and equipment to protect workers, medical surveillance and long-term recordkeeping.

“We are still missing important pieces of information — such as a detailed description of the toxicology of North Slope Crude oil, and air sampling results to date.  It is hoped that Exxon, which is overseeing the cleanup, soon will provide such information.

At this point, we summarize by stressing the need to promptly implement effective, thorough training program for all workers who might have been or may be exposed to the spilled oil and its vapors.

Second, a medical system must be in place—first to provide quick, effective first-aid for any injured or ill worker, and second to monitor possible long-term ill effects.  Medical surveillance now should document which personnel have worked at each site and for how long, and any reports of injury or illness that might be work-related.

Third, a broad-based local commission of union, management, and community representatives should operate throughout the cleanup to assure that the workers’ health and safety are protected.

The dispersing agents described in the team’s 1989 report were butoxy ethanol (butyl cellosolve), isopropyl alcohol, and paraffinic solvents.  I’ve not been able to find quickly information on any newer dispersing agents that may be used in the Gulf Coast.  It seems that several technologies have been identified to react to oil spills, but this BP Deepwater Horizon situation is not just a spill—it’s a #$*% disaster—and responders’ trial and error will be the playbook in the weeks ahead.

I know there are bright minds on the ground assessing the response options.  I hope there are as many bright minds back in their offices at OSHA, NIOSH, ATSDR, EPA and state agencies, coming up with a short-term and long-term plans to monitor the health of the clean-up workers and the exposed residents.   Watch this video (00:07:00) about the illnesses suffered by the Exxon Valdez cleanup workers, including the “Valdez crud.”  Our public health officials should ensure that the cost of this medical surveillance be included in the growing tab to drop on BP chief Tony Hayward’s desktop.

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