We’re delighted to welcome journalist Elizabeth Grossman as a new writer for The Pump Handle. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism. – The Editors
By Elizabeth Grossman
As the unprecedented offshore oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolds and extraordinary measures are being taken to protect vulnerable coastal and marine environments from the toxic fuel, the question arises: Is the health and safety of responders being protected as well? Over the past week, I’ve been investigating this question for The Pump Handle, but answers to my questions have not been forthcoming. On May 3, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head David Michaels visited the Gulf and profile of responder health and safety issues began to rise, but many questions remain unanswered. This is an evolving situation, with conditions changing daily. Information about the incident, while to a certain extent copious, is also being tightly controlled. This is what The Pump Handle has learned to date.
As of May 12th there were approximately 27,500 people involved in what’s officially called the Deepwater Horizon response – some 13,000 civilian and military personnel and an additional 14, 500 volunteers. The effort to date involves more than 500 boats; deployment of nearly 300 miles of protective and absorbent containment boom; and recovery of nearly 5 million gallons of oily water. About half a million gallons of chemical dispersants have been used, most sprayed aerially onto surface water, but nearly 30,000 gallons have also been tested underwater. There are also ongoing controlled burns of oil on the water’s surface. Additional efforts are underway to physically cap the underwater gusher, to plug the well holes, and drill a relief well. Tar balls are washing ashore, oiled wildlife are being attended to, and affected areas of the Gulf are closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting.
A pressing question is how to ensure the health and safety of response workers – a question being asked with the specters of the Exxon Valdez, World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina looming large. Concern is real that in the rush to protect beaches, sensitive wetlands, and wildlife – and to contain the massive oil flow – health and safety of those on the front lines is receiving scant attention.
The crude oil that’s been flowing unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of last least 200,000 gallons per day since BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20th, killing 11 workers on board and seriously injuring 17, is a mixture of carcinogens and other toxic substances. So are the 700,000 gallons of diesel that were on board the rig when it collapsed on April 22nd. The chemical dispersants now being used at unprecedented volume are also hazardous. The toxicity of the combined oil and dispersants and their effect on human health has yet to be determined. (There are no existing consumption safety standards for these dispersants if they’re found in seafood.) There are also questions about health effects of combined exposure to the chemicals that make up crude oil and the strong UV light of the Gulf. Another area of concern is health risks posed by particulates resulting from surface oil burning and from volatile compounds – organic solvents and sulfides among them – emanating from the floating oil now making landfall. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) warns that even at low levels there can be adverse health impacts from these airborne contaminants.
While virtually every federal agency is involved in the response, BP is the incident’s responsible party. “BP is in control,” explains Chip Hughes, director of NIEHS Worker Education Training Program who accompanied Assistant Secretary Michaels on his trip to the Gulf. Hughes and colleagues have been working with OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and BP to establish response worker health and safety training on site. Working like this in tandem with a responsible party – i.e., the polluter – “I don’t think has ever happened before,” said Hughes at the May 13 meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences (NAEHS) Council.
“We don’t think adequate protection is being provided to workers but we think that it will be,” said Hughes.
Among the many challenges to worker safety are the exemptions from hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER) standards OSHA allowed during the Exxon Valdez response – exemptions BP is now operating under. Standard HAZWOPER training is 40 hours; the exemption allows a 4-hour course. Trainings for responders are now taking place at various staging sites on the Gulf coast, but they were only set up in the past few days.
It’s been hard to get information about worker health and safety. Last week questions about health and safety training put to the Deepwater Horizon Response Joint Information Center (JIC) in Robert, LA went unanswered. State offices signing up volunteers did not have this information either. The JIC provided contact information for a BP spokesperson, who said he had no information and told me to call the JIC I’d just spoken to.
Questions raised over the past several days to which definitive answers have yet to be forthcoming include who is providing and paying for protective gear and if the gear is adequate to the task – including the handling of weathered crude and chemical dispersants. The dispersants being used contain petroleum-based solvents, which are not consistently compatible with certain plastics, synthetics, and rubber among other materials.
Among the exposures of concern are with oil and dispersant as boom is laid and oil-soiled boom is replaced – work that is now ongoing, including by fisherman and other community members responding with what are called Vessels of Opportunity, typically fishing and tourism boats put out of work by the disaster but now being used to lay boom, skim oil, and perform other clean up and mitigation work. Given the hazards, decontamination of boats, equipment, clothing and people is also a concern. A material safety data sheet for crude oil cautions that contaminated clothing requires special handling as fuel vapors could ignite a laundry dryer. It also recommends special breathing protection.
NIOSH has now posted health and safety bulletins for the dispersants, one of which contains 30-60% 2-butoxyethanol and the other 10-30% petroleum distillates. 2-butoxyethanol can destroy red blood cells; the NIOSH recommended exposure limit for a full work shift is 5 parts per million. For petroleum distillates in mist form, NIOSH recommended exposure limit is 15 minutes.
OSHA, NIEHS and NIOSH have available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese an oil spill clean up training tool. These agencies are now directly involved in training in the Gulf staging areas – a development of the past several days.
The state of Louisiana has a 31-page vessel decontamination manual, which applies to the kinds of small boats being used in the Gulf cleanup; it specifies use of eye protection, gloves, boots, hard hats, and hearing protection (depending on cleaning method).
Dermatitis and inhalation of oil and dispersant chemicals are a concern. “We hope people have gloves,” said Hughes on the 13th.
Worry about community responder health and safety is not unfounded. In the first weeks of the response – we’re now in day 24 – BP produced an agreement to be signed by owners of Vessels of Opportunity. The original Master Vessel Charter Agreement, as it’s called, required the boat owners to relieve BP of responsibility for health and safety training and required that the boat owner agree to a scope of work on the water that involves contact with hazardous oil and chemicals, without training provided by BP.
On May 7, the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association in Louisiana and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) won a Temporary Restraining Order from the U.S. District court, Second District, requiring that BP take responsibility for hazardous chemical exposure safety for all commercial fishermen it hires for cleanup and mitigation work. The judgment confirmed that BP was imposing onerous burdens on the fishermen, explained Stuart Smith of Smith Stag, the firm leading the suit. (The fishermen and community groups throughout the Gulf region have also filed suit to recover damages.) Training is now being provided for Vessels of Opportunity crews, and according to the JIC over the past several days about 1,000 people have now received such training.
On the 12th, Louisiana District Court again ruled in favor of the fishermen, saying that BP must honor legal claims against the company from fishermen who’ve accepted payments from BP to make up for income lost as a result of the oil.
What the occupational and environmental health specialists want to help avert are long term health damages. Among the concerns raised by Hughes and other members of the NAEHS Council, including NIEHS director Linda Birnbaum, is the need for medical surveillance for response workers and community residents – which would help identify any adverse health effects sooner rather than later. Another is that thus far there are no mental health care provisions for responders or community members.
NOAA now projects that heavy oil flow will reach landfall near Venice, Louisiana by Sunday May 16th.