Outrage Over Cleanup Worker Health Impacts…And An Inexcusable Lack of Long-Term Monitoring


“Outrage” is a word that should be used sparingly when speaking of the BP oil spill and the response to it. When an enormously wealthy multinational corporation repeatedly low-balls oil-flow estimates, pumps 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant into the food chain, drags its feet on paying victim claims while throwing $100 million at PR, and then announces (with help from its government partners) that the “vast majority” of the oil is gone…well, the outrage bar is set pretty damn high.

But even in this context that borders on the surreal, there’s a true outrage revealed in a new report tracking health impacts on cleanup workers from a 2002 spill off Spain’s northwest coast. I blogged on this study earlier in the week, but I feel like the findings warrant some harder-hitting commentary. It turns out that among “38 supertanker oil spills which occurred during the last 50 years, it is the only spill to monitor oil spill clean-up workers long-term for illnesses.”

No wonder nobody knows how many response workers have died from oil-related causes. Nobody’s asked. Nobody’s done the research. The international community has monitored just ONE of the 38 supertanker spills for long-term illnesses suffered by cleanup workers? Outrageous, but apparently it’s true.

The report from Spain has found that cleanup workers displayed “persistent respiratory symptoms, elevated markers of airway injury in breath condensate, and chromosomal damage.” Very scary stuff. And we are now hearing that many – some say “most” or “all” – of the Exxon Valdez front-line cleanup workers are dead. Now we realize that Big Oil spends more – much more – on PR and advertising than on followup health studies. Again, outrageous but apparently true.

Let’s learn from our shortcomings and fill this research vacuum so we don’t send responders out to do our dirty work without knowing the long-term health impacts and without taking the necessary precautions to protect them.

Read more about the Spanish report here: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/297358

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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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