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New Evidence Links BP to Health Crisis in the Gulf

Severe headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, burning eyes and throat, earache and chest pains -- and that's just the beginning.

BP's stock has already bounced back. The media has mostly moved on. But the long-term health impacts on Gulf Coast residents from the catastrophic oil spill are only beginning.

Exhibit A, says chemist Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, is a recent evaluation she performed of blood sample analyses from eight BP cleanup workers and residents in Alabama and Florida.

Originally collected on four separate dates throughout August, all the blood samples -- from three females, age 44, 46 and 51, and five males, age 30, 46, 48, 51 and 59 -- contained dangerously high levels of volatile organic chemicals found in BP crude oil, including Ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene and Hexane, Subra explained during a wide-ranging interview with Alternet.

She clarified that the subjects whose blood was analyzed had been exposed to the oil for at least three full months before samples were collected on August 2, 3, 12 and 18.

Testing for the same chemical markers, Subra hunted down BP's crude fingerprints out in the field all along the coast, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's panhandle.

"I've found there's still huge amounts of BP crude oil on the sediment soils, in the wetlands, on the vegetation, and in the tissue in the oysters, crabs and mussels."

The acute health impacts of these chemicals include severe headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, burning eyes and throat, earache and chest pains.

Subra, who is also a microbiologist and the recipient of a 1999 MacArthur Fellows "genius grant" for her environmental work, pointed out that coastal residents have already entered an early phase of long-term exposure, where they're experiencing chronic effects such as liver, kidney and central nervous system damage, decreased lung function and heart disease.

"A whole host of different kinds of cancers" can follow, she added, including cancer of the lungs, liver, kidneys and blood.

The original analysis of these blood samples, which was performed by Metametrix Clinical Laboratory in Pensacola, Florida, wasn't evaluated for chemicals found in the dispersants used by BP. But Subra said those dispersant chemicals have many similar acute and long-term impacts.

Contrary to rosy statements by BP and Obama administration officials about the Gulf's swift restoration, her prognosis for those sickened by the oil spill is grim.

"The people that are sick are going to be sick for the rest of their lives," Subra said. "This isn't just a short time that they're sick and then they'll get well. These issues are long-term chronic health impacts that will linger."

She pointed out that 21 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, people in Alaska are still experiencing related health issues today.

BP has seen all of Subra's findings but hasn't responded.

"I've sent them the data," she said, "but I didn't really expect them to respond."

How They Got Sick

In her meetings with coastal residents, cleanup workers and volunteer health care providers, Subra has seen firsthand the devastating effects of the mix of oil and dispersants on the health of vulnerable populations.

She explained that many people have become sick through contact with these chemicals while working to clean up the oil spill and blames BP directly for not only failing to provide proper protective gear, such as respirators, but also threatening to fire cleanup workers if they wore them.

"The Louisiana Environmental Network [LEAN] actually provided protective gear and respirators," said Subra. "But the fishing community was told, 'If you wear the respirator, you're fired.'"

The workers, many of whom were fishermen who had joined the cleanup to earn money after the waters were despoiled and closed by the spill, had to choose between supporting their families or protecting themselves from chemicals found in the oil and dispersants.