How BP poisoned 170,000 Gulf cleanup workers


The most misunderstood — and arguably the most tragic — outcome of the 2010 BP oil spill is the very serious risk to an estimated 170,000 citizens who had some role in cleaning up the environmental disaster. A veritable army of civilians — some hired though BP, but many of them volunteers worried about the impact of some 5 million barrels of crude oil on the Gulf and its wildlife — took to the water or combed the beaches to fight back against the spill.

Just days into this effort, we went into court on behalf of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, because of numerous reports of workers not being given proper gear. We fought for workers to wear respirators and protective clothing, with mixed results. For many, already exposed to the toxic oil and also the hazardous chemical called Corexit used to disperse the petroleum, the push for greater protection was too little and too late.

This week came the results of the first major toxicity investigation of the Deepwater Horizon cleanup workers, and the finding were devastating. The survey confirmed that the oil exposure altered the workers’ blood and that they have an increased risk of developing liver cancer, leukemia and other disorders:

The study, conducted by doctors at Houston’s University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers and reported in the American Journal of Medicine, sheds new light on the potential health repercussions for the more than 170,000 people who worked in some capacity to clean up the 2010 spill.

Clean-up workers encountered oil that gushed from BP’s failed Macondo well but also may have come into contact with chemical dispersants used to help break up the crude. And while they were outfitted with protective suits and gloves, some workers may have removed the gear amid sweltering summer conditions or used diluents to scrub off any residue.

Oil contains benzene, a powerful carcinogen.

“Benzene is a very toxic substance. It’s easily absorbed through tissues, such as your skin,” said Mark A. D’Andrea, the lead author of the study and medical director for the University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers. “Once it enters your system, it affects several organs.”

The researchers found a number of abnormal readings for critical enzymes in the blood of the cleanup workers — some of which suggested a greatly elevated risk of liver damage. The findings of likely liver and bone marrow damage would place the cleanup workers at greater risk for leukemias, lymphoma and myelomas, as well as liver, pancreas and gallbladder cancer. In addition, the academics found the workers complained of “headaches and shortness of breath, followed by skin rashes and chronic coughs.”

These results are not a huge surprise to anyone who has worked closely with these folks who cleaned up the beaches and marshes in 2010. Last December, I wrote about a letter that a leading Gulf Coast physician, Dr. Michael Robichaux, had sent to the judge overseeing the $7.8 billion BP settlement that was sharply critical of the deal, stating that it had grossly downplayed the extent of illnesses among those who had come in contact with BP’s oil.“It appears that the interests of a large, foreign corporation has superceded the needs of thousands of Americans who reside along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” Dr. Robichaux told Judge Carl Barbier. One year ago, I appeared before Judge Barbier to make a similar plea to cover more medical costs because of this looming crisis.

These risks, these symptoms, and the likelihood of these very serious diseases is exactly what we were trying to prevent in that courtroom three years ago. It’s more evidence that the damage that BP has done along the Gulf Coast through its wanton recklessness is incalculable.

To read more details on the blood studies of BP-spill cleanup workers, please go to:

Read my Dec. 17, 2012, blog post about Dr. Michael Robichaux’s letter and his ailing Gulf patients:

Here is my Sept. 12, 2012, post arguing against the then-proposed BP settlement terms:

 © Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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