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The Gulf Disaster Will Keep Destroying Lives For Years to Come -- Is There Anything We Can Do About It?

The gulf spill presents physical and mental threats to those nearby and across the country. Too bad there's no sound science to prove BP's responsible.

Despite President Barack Obama’s recent, high-profile frolick in the gulf – during which he made a point of eating seafood and swimming in the region’s seemingly “unpolluted” waters – questions remain about the spill’s impact on both the region and the country as a whole: Will cleanup workers and residents suffer the same health problems that devastated those living and working near the Exxon/Valdez spill two decades ago? Will Americans from D.C. to L.A. face increased risks of eating contaminated seafood? All available evidence seems to say, “yes.”

Since cleanup efforts began, Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, has documented a steady increase in “health complaints believed to be related to exposure to pollutants from the oil spill.” And according to a “ Recordable Injury and Illness Data Sheet,” compiled by the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, more than 300 oil-related illnesses were reported in a period of less than two months. These maladies strongly resemble many of the 11,000 that were reported soon after Exxon/Valdez, and range from nausea, faintness and difficulty breathing to dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Most recently, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) hashed out some of the two incidents’ parallel hazards, adding a new layer to an already damning body of evidence. Drawing on the lessons of 1989, it paints a bleak picture of the toll BP’s 3,239,000 remaining spilled barrels could have on public health in the gulf -- both in the long and short term.

The article, titled “ Health Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill,” cautions that inhalation and dermal contact with some of the crude’s chemicals could result in “direct threats to human health,” and “indirect threats to seafood safety and mental health.” Among the oil and dispersant chemicals mentioned are benzene, which causes leukemia in humans; toluene, which at high doses is capable of interfering with the development of a fetus; and naphthalene, a substance that the National Toxicology Program calls “reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans.” The article also warns against other hazards like hydrogen sulfide gas (a neurotoxin), “particulate matter” that causes cardiac/respiratory symptoms and “premature mortality,” and propylene glycol.

Of particular interest though is the article’s discussion of 2-butoxyethanol, a respiratory irritant and known endocrine disruptor found in some of the dispersants BP has been using to break up its slick. Once categorized as a “hazardous air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, 2-butoxyethanol has since been removed from that list on the grounds that it “may not reasonably be anticipated to cause adverse human health or environmental affects” in low doses.

For the 47,000 workers in the gulf – especially those most susceptible to exploitation: out of work fisherman, inmates, certain contractors – the phrase “low doses” doesn’t really apply. Many have already reported unexplained health problems after working long hours near oil-fouled waters; and others have been hospitalized for bizarre injuries uncommon to their typical line of work. Because the alternative to de-mucking gulf waters is often unemployment, many are reluctant to report symptoms.

"It an unwritten rule, you don't bite the hand that feeds you," George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Assn. in St. Bernard Parish, told the LA Times a few months ago. BP, which has forced some crews to sign agreements that prohibit discussion of working conditions, also failed to provide adequate safety equipment for the first 70 days of cleanup. This makes exposure to chemicals like 2-BE that much more hazardous.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s rationale for re-categorizing 2-BE, according to some experts, failed to anticipate disasters like the Deepwater Horizon explosion.