ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Wherever disaster strikes, there’s always an associated crud.
There was the Exxon Valdez Crud. The Nine Eleven Crud. The Katrina Cough, and then the TVA coal ash cough.
Now, along the entire coast of the Gulf of Mexico, there is the BP Crud, afflicting workers and the general population from Louisiana to Florida.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, Robin Young, a 47-year-old director of guest services for a property management company in Orange Beach, Alabama, was gearing up for what promised to be the best tourist season on the coast in years. From the city of New Orleans to the Florida panhandle, communities were finally starting to feel like they were recovering from the devastation left in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Ivan.
Since suffering a debilitating bout of what locals are calling the “BP Crud,” however, like thousands of other people along the coast due to their exposure to the oil and chemical dispersants, she is now part of a growing community of activists along the coast who are worried about their health.
Just a few days after BP’s oil made landfall along the Alabama Gulf Coast in June, Ms. Young’s symptoms started with “a fiery, burning sore throat,” she said. Then came the horrible, constant cough, followed by an achy feeling much like a severe flu virus — and a lethargy that kept her in bed for two weeks solid. Her memory started playing tricks on her, and her motor skills and even hand-to-eye coordination went south.
She started communicating with other sick folks over the Internet, and attending local meetings with corporate and government officials. At one meeting early on, she asked for a show of hands in a room of maybe 400 people to see how many had suffered symptoms similar to hers.
“Half the people in the room raised their hands,” she said in an interview at her cottage right next to the Intercoastal Waterway, which was polluted with oil and chemicals at the height of the disaster. Clearly, this was not some isolated event unrelated to the oil rig blowout.
Her new friends, who soon started a nonprofit group called Guardians of the Gulf, tried to find a local doctor to help them. After having no luck, they eventually found an out of state toxicologist and a doctor who knew enough about a new area of occupational and environmental health to order blood tests.
They found Dr. Michael R. Harbut, a clinical professor of Internal Medicine and director of the Environmental Cancer Program at Wayne State University’s Karmanos Cancer Institute, board certified in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. And they found Metametrix, a lab to test their blood.
What they found in the blood tests was a stew of toxic chemicals directly associated with oil and gas production and the chemical dispersant Corexit, including ethylbenzene, xylenehigh and high levels of hexane, a hydrocarbon chiefly obtained by the refining of crude oil.
The long-term toxicity of hexane in humans is extensive peripheral nervous system failure. The initial symptoms are tingling and cramps in the arms and legs, followed by general muscular weakness. In severe cases, skeletal muscles atrophy and those exposed suffer a loss of coordination and vision problems, the very symptoms Ms. Young reported.
Town officials and even local doctors have tried to silence her and others who raise the health issue, worried that if news got out, it could hurt the local economy even more. But a group of local pharmacists started keeping diaries of people coming in with similar symptoms.
“There’s a core group of them that finally said, ‘Holy Cow,’ something’s going on,” she said. “They started listening to what we were saying. But we still couldn’t get a lot of help. We couldn’t get help from the local doctors because they didn’t know what to do.”
Early on, Ms. Young invited a crew from Bio-Cascade, air-pollution specialists out of New Jersey and Boston, to come down and test the air. She put them up in a house right on the beach.
On the third day John Vallier of Bio-Cascade woke up with a sore throat. He put the air monitoring machine on the deck and within 15 minutes it showed 110 parts per million of Volatile Organic Compounds in the air. The crew quickly packed and said they would help from outside the vicinity of the bad air coming off the Gulf. It was striking how scared they were and how fast they got out of town, Ms. Young said, while EPA was downplaying the threat coming from its own air monitoring stations.
Another member of her group who suffered similar symptoms but does not want to be identified by name called the local schools and confirmed that there were an unusual number of children out sick with what was diagnosed as “strep throat” and a “stomach virus,” at the end of summer and long before flu season is supposed to start.
Another woman, Robyn Hill of Foley, actually passed out while working for a BP contractor cleaning up the beach. When she was taken to the hospital by ambulance, the doctor tried to make her sign a form saying she suffered a heat stroke. She refused, and has now joined the cause to save the Gulf.
“It really fired us up,” Ms Young said.
So they found a chemist in Mobile to test the water, Bob Naman, an analytical chemist with nearly thirty years of experience. They have tracked the oil, natural gas and Corexit. One sample right off Dauphin Island was so full of methane that it blew up in the lab’s test tube.
Meanwhile, Ms. Young and her friends are now being told they need a high resolution scan of their lungs, brain, liver and kidneys.
“They’ve also told us that in five to 10 years — they don’t have a time frame, they’re just guessing,” she said, “that we could come down with some godawful form of cancer.”
That’s exactly what happened in the area around Prince Williams Sound, Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the spring of 1989 and leaked about 11 million gallons of crude into the water, according to Dr. Riki Ott, a recognized expert with a Ph.D. in marine toxicology and a specialty in oil pollution.
Dr. Ott’s information is so sought after in four of the five Gulf states most affected by the largest and worst environmental disaster in U.S. history that she has practically moved to the Gulf Coast. I finally caught up with her in a hotel room on my iPhone from Gulf Shores.
After spending the past four months working to try to get a handle on the scope of the problem, and getting sick herself, she has heard similar stories first-hand now from people ranging from Terrebonne Parish Louisiana to Apalachicola Florida.
“What struck me when I first started hearing these stories was how similar the symptoms were to what happened after the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” she said.
The human health effects of that spill were mostly confined to sick workers, she indicated, because that area of Alaska is not heavily populated like the Gulf Coast.
“I expected the vessel of opportunity workers to get sick because they were given hard hats instead of respirators just like our guys were. So it really didn’t surprise me in early May when I heard pretty much identical health symptoms,” she said. Dizziness, sore throat, headache, nausea, burning eyes, and eventually skin rashes resistant to treatment with antibiotics.
“What convinced me that we may have a really big problem here,” she said, is when she heard similar stories at community forums from people not working directly in the oil and chemical tainted water, marshes and sand, and when she talked to pharmacists who reported seeing a huge increase in respiratory illnesses and bad skin rashes.
“Now that the children are back in school, there’s a series of ’strep throat,” she said. “It’s the same symptoms, the blisters in the throat, the rashes I’d heard about all summer.”
There is a new area of occupational and environmental medicine covering chemical related illnesses, and the symptoms literally mimic flu-like symptoms. Dr. Ott is launching a Gulf-wide health survey along with coastal non-profit groups including the Louisiana Bayoukeeper and Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute. The groups are also holding community health forums and opening health centers to try to get a handle on the scope of the problem.
But there are serious gaps in the law that allows workers to be exempted from coverage by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and even under the existing workers compensation regime. Under the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA does not recognize chemical illnesses, Dr. Ott said, although it is recognized under the American Disabilities Act.
“We’ve got a safety net with two big holes in it, and the workers are falling through those holes. It’s time to close those holes, and not only for the workers, but for the public,” she said. “What’s going on in the Gulf is to pretend that we can have this release of 200 million plus gallons of oil, 2 million plus gallons of toxic chemicals, and it’s not going to have any effect? In a highly populated area? I mean, come on!”