Mystery Illnesses Plague Louisiana Oil Spill Crews
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RACELAND, Louisiana — Jamie Simon worked on a barge in the oily waters for six months following the BP spill last year, cooking for the cleanup workers, washing their clothes and tidying up after them.
One year later, the 32-year-old said she still suffers from a range of debilitating health problems, including racing heartbeat, vomiting, dizziness, ear infections, swollen throat, poor sight in one eye and memory loss.
She blames toxic elements in the crude oil and the dispersants sprayed to dissolve it after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010.
"I was exposed to those chemicals, which I questioned, and they told me it was just as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid and there was nothing for me to worry about," she said of the BP bosses at the job site.
The local doctor, Mike Robichaux, said he has seen as many as 60 patients like Simon in recent weeks, as this small southern town of 10,000 bordered by swamp land and sugar cane fields grapples with a mysterious sickness that some believe is all BP's fault.
Andy LaBoeuf, 51, said he was paid $1,500 per day to use his boat to go out on the water and lay boom to contain some of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed from the bottom of the ocean after the BP well ruptured.
But four months of that job left him ill and unable to work, and he said he recently had to refinance his home loan because he could not pay his taxes.
"I have just been sick for a long time. I just got sick and I couldn't get better," LaBoeuf said, describing memory problems and a sore throat that has nagged him for a year.
Robichaux, an ear, nose and throat specialist whose office an hour's drive southwest of New Orleans is nestled on a roadside marked with handwritten signs advertising turtle meat for sale, says he is treating many of the local patients in their homes.
"Their work ethic is so strong, they are so stoic, they don't want people to know when they're sick," he said.
"Ninety percent of them are getting worse... Nobody has a clue as to what it is."
According to a roster compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a total of 52,000 workers were responding to the Gulf oil spill as of August 2010.
The state of Louisiana has reported 415 cases of health problems linked to the spill, with symptoms including sore throats, irritated eyes, respiratory tract infections, headaches and nausea.
But Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the US government's method of collecting health data on the workers is flawed.
For instance, a major study of response workers by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences was not funded until six months after the spill, a critical delay that affects both the biology and the recall ability of the workers.
"It is too late if you go six months later," he told AFP.
Benzene, a known carcinogen present in crude oil, disappears from a person's blood within four months, Goldstein said.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are pollutants that can cause genetic mutations and cancer. They are of particular interest in studying long-term health, but without a baseline for comparison it is difficult to know where they came from -- the oil spill or somewhere else in the environment.