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Study finds high incidence of respiratory problems in oil spill cleanup workers

Workers clean a beach after tar balls washed up as efforts continue to contain BP's massive oil spill on May 12, 2010, in South Pass, La. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP was leaking an estimated rate of 1,000-5,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 9, 2015

Thousands of people who were hired to help clean up after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill are experiencing problems with their respiratory systems that may be tied to their exposure to the oil, according to an ongoing government study of the spill's health impacts.

The incidence of wheezing and coughing among cleanup workers that BP hired was 20 to 30 percent higher than among the general public, Dale Sandler, chief of the epidemiology branch of the National Institutes of Health, said Friday.

"People who had the greatest exposure to the oil had more wheezing and more coughing," Sandler said. That's true even after allowing for all the smokers who took part in the cleanup, she said.

The next step for that part of the study, Sandler said, is to find out how long those symptoms may stick with those who were exposed. She also promised that all of the study's findings will be written up and submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

"Protection of worker and public health was one of BP's highest priorities throughout the response, and multiple government agencies and officials have already assessed any potential impact on responders," BP senior vice president Geoff Morrell said in response.

He pointed out that the thousands of air samples the company took during the cleanup showed the workers were not exposed to any levels of toxic air beyond what the law allows. And he noted that federal officials had said that "oil-spill cleanup workers do not appear to have higher rates of harmful chemical exposure than other U.S. residents."

The Deepwater Horizon disaster began with a bang five years ago. On April 20, 2010, the oil rig 150 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded, killing 11 people. The rig sank, and two days later oil began gushing from 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico's surface.

Oil washed up on the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and, in June, finally reached Florida. Thousands of shiny, reddish-brown globs, some as big as Frisbees, tainted the sugar-white beaches across eight counties, while tar mats the size of throw rugs floated just offshore.

BP was unable to shut off the flow from the submerged rig until July, which meant an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had spewed out and spread through the gulf. Some of it settled on the ocean floor and some was consumed by oil-eating bacteria. But plenty of it washed ashore — in fact, as recently as last year, a 1,000-pound tar mat washed up near Pensacola Beach.

To clean up the oil, BP hired 55,000 people, many of whom had been previously unemployed and had no prior experience with oil spills. They would work in the sun for 10 minutes, then sit in the shade for 50, or put in 14 hours at night when no one saw them. They wore hard hats and steel-toed boots as they trudged along the beach scooping up tar balls.

Christopher Klug of Brooksville lasted exactly four days at his cleanup job on the Panhandle beaches.

"I got sick up there right away and they sent me home," he said Friday. "It was the smell. It just reeked. It was like working inside an oil tank."

In the past 50 years, in 40 known oil spills around the world, only eight have been studied for human health impacts. Those studies found that cleanup workers exposed to crude oil often suffer acute short-term effects — stinging eyes, rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughs and other respiratory symptoms. But there have been no studies of the long-term health effects.

So in February 2011, the National Institute of Health announced that it would spend a decade studying the health impact on the cleanup workers — the largest such study in the agency's history.

The study's 40 or so employees signed up 33,000 of the people who had played some role in the cleanup. So far, Sandler said, all have been interviewed and 19,000 secondary interviews have been set up. They have also set up clinics in New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., to do four-hour medical exams, and so far have conducted 1,200 of those.

They have been able to alleviate some concerns, she said. For instance, blood tests showed that benzene and other chemicals associated with the oil are not present in the workers' bloodstreams, which she said was a major worry for some of the workers.

In addition to the respiratory problems, Sandler said, the study has found a greater incidence of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, among those who worked on the cleanup.

Connecting that to physical exposure to the oil may prove to be difficult, she said, but they have found that "the more mental health concerns you have, the closer you were to the spill."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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