The EPA hasn’t even selected participants in its big study of BP spill cleanup workers and already the agency is backing off on holding the oil giant responsible for health damages, stressing not the current crisis but the limits of what it will discover – even before it has discovered anything at all.
You see the doublespeak begin in a Channel 8 Fox News report out of New Orleans, with the lead researcher saying that the study “…will help us learn if oil spills and exposure to crude oil, dispersants and fumes affect physical and mental health.” Don’t get too excited, because the researcher also carves out ample wiggle room, suggesting that the ultimate goal is impossible to achieve: “…we can never demonstrate exact cause and effect or provide proof in this type of observational study.”
Then the Fox report says this: “…investigators have their work cut out for them when it comes to determining whether high levels of benzene and other chemicals are due solely to the spill. She said benzene exposure can come from cigarette smoke and something as simple as pumping gasoline.”
Some environmental activists are already questioning the study (before it even gets going). In effect, why bother if you begin by saying you can’t determine cause and effect?
The fact is you can determine a great percentage of cause and effect. I’ve tried cases where oil companies attempt to dismiss their responsibility in causing cancer in their workers, because the victims smoked, but we’ve been able to show that other toxic exposures can be blamed as well. There’s actually a lot of precedent – if anyone wants to find it.
Of course, these types of legal arguments can’t be made without supporting scientific evidence. And in the context of oil spills, there is, in fact, a wealth of research on health effects. The argument many have made that we don’t have any basis for assessing the health effects of this spill is utter nonsense.
Veteran toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer, a leading member of my research team, warned early on in the spill that there were serious risks for both cleanup workers and coastal residents with respect to skin contact and inhalation of volatile emissions. Dr. Sawyer based those warnings (which largely fell on deaf ears) on published human epidemiological, peer-reviewed studies from Spain, Shetland, Pakistan, Wales, Alaska and Japan. According to Sawyer, those studies show “consistent and statistically-significant findings among coastal residents and cleanup workers exposed to crude oil and volatile emissions” (see http://www.cdasystems/com/documents/oilstudies.htm).
Not surprisingly, the adverse health effects in the peer-reviewed studies mirror the symptoms we are seeing in a growing number of Gulf residents and cleanup workers: debilitating headaches; throat, eye and upper-respiratory irritation; cough; rash; markers of chromosomal damage; lower respiratory-tract impairment and neuropsychological disorders (including depression).
A cynic might think that the real BP benefit of a large study – 100,000 letters going out, and 55,000 participants expected – is that it allows Big Oil to defer any accountability until “the study results are in.” This is a convenient and time-tested stance, since the researchers are already assuring us they are unable assess blame.
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