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

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.

“They didn’t exclude it because it’s believed to be without harm,” said William Nazaroff, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “They excluded it because they argued that the exposure pathways wouldn’t rise to a level that would lead to harmful exposure. I doubt that they had in mind its use as a cleanup chemical in an oil spill on the gulf. That scenario was not considered.”

On the issue of seafood consumption, JAMA’s study pokes a few holes in the White House’s recent assertion that “Americans can confidently and safely enjoy Gulf seafood again.” Because invertebrates like crabs and shrimp cannot clear dangerous hydrocarbons from their systems the same way fish and some shellfish can, these chemicals have the potential to accumulate for years. And since gulf scientists have begun to discover trace amounts of oil in blue crab larvae, there’s reason to be concerned about how often, and in what volume, gulf catches are consumed.

“The oil has reached a position where it can start moving up the food chain instead of just hanging in the water," Bob Thomas, a biologist at Loyola University in New Orleans, recently told AP. "Something likely will eat those oiled larvae ... and then that animal will be eaten by something bigger and so on." All the way up to humans.

Bioaccumulation is one concern; another is the flawed FDA/NOAA protocols for determining seafood safety. According to Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the NRDC and one of the JAMA study’s authors, the standards (which apply to all gulf seafood -- about 70 percent of the U.S.’s supply) employ a series of “faulty assumptions.”

For example, the agencies used a baseline weight of 176 pounds when evaluating the human body’s capacity to metabolize contaminants – a figure that effectively ignores a large percentage of young children in the U.S. as well as approximately 50 percent of women. They also botched consumption rates: Ignoring the NOAA’s guidance, the FDA used national estimates to determine how much seafood gulf residents were eating. This method is highly problematic given the fact that many people who live near the spill (fisherman, for example) are likely to consume an amount of seafood that’s much larger than someone in say Idaho or Colorado.

Finally, the testing timeframe leaves a bit to be desired: Despite evidence from earlier spills that suggests contamination can persist for up to seven years, the NOAA and FDA intend to monitor seafood for only five. According to Solomon, this is essentially an arbitrary number. “The FDA risk assessment,” she recently wrote on her blog, “did not provide a scientific rationale for the choice of only a five-year exposure duration.”

Chemical exposure (be it through contaminated seafood or inhalation and dermal contact) is only part of the gulf disaster equation. In addition to running a high risk of developing physical maladies, gulf residents are also more susceptible to a slew of mental health problems that are, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to those felt after Exxon/Valdez. According to a July study from Ochsner Health System, a Louisiana-based non-profit, 30 percent of gulf residents have begun experiencing signs of “probable serious” or “probable mild-moderate” mental illnesses since April. That number is more than double what it was just two years ago, despite 2007’s proximity to the stresses of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

According to Ochsner, “Gulf Coast residents reported the most stress from money problems (34 percent) and work issues (19 percent), while relationship difficulties, substance abuse and missed appointments with mental health professionals added to their woes during the ongoing disaster.” Those with the lowest incomes – less than $25,000 per year -- were found to be the most susceptible.

So what are doctors to do with this information? The JAMA authors say “prevention of illness from oil and related chemicals on the Gulf Coast during the cleanup period includes proper protective equipment for workers and common-sense precautions for community residents.” But since there’s really nothing in the way of peer-reviewed science documenting Exxon/Valdez’s long-term physical and emotional health effects, drawing hard-and-fast medical conclusions from 1989’s debacle is a pretty fruitless endeavor.

Or, as Obama puts it, a continuing success. Last Sunday, in a speech commemorating the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he told an audience at Xavier University, “just as we've sought to ensure that we are doing what it takes to recover from Katrina, my administration has worked hard to match our efforts on the spill to what you need on the ground.”

After an eruption of applause from students, pastors and politicians, he added: “we will continue to rely on sound science, carefully monitoring waters and coastlines as well as the health of the people along the Gulf, to deal with any long-term effects of the oil spill.”

What he didn’t say is that’s really all the administration can do: witness a disaster, then hope it’s not too late to address it. Indeed, 21 years after Exxon/Valdez, it’s still seemingly the only method for countering an oil giant’s abuses: wait for something to bubble up, then go about sluicing through the mess.

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