Published May 25, 2010
Some Louisiana fishermen affected by the massive oil spill in the Gulf — including some hired by BP to help in the cleanup — are reporting cases of debilitating headaches, burning eyes and nausea, and some industry and public officials are pointing the finger at chemical dispersants as the cause.
Gary Burris, a fisherman who works along the Gulf Coast, said he has observed planes spraying dispersants into the water, a chemical rain meant to stop oil slicks from forming and break down the crude more quickly.
Now Burris says that after breathing in the dispersants he grew ill and disoriented, confining himself to bed for days and ultimately going to a doctor for treatment and antibiotics.
"It filled my lungs with fluid," he said. "I'm hurting — I'm sore from coughing."
Burris and other residents of the Gulf are reporting a slew of symptoms that some biologists say are directly attributable to the chemicals now gushing into the Gulf on a daily basis.
"These are the exact symptoms that you could expect from overexposure to crude oil and to the chemicals that are being used out on the cleanup," said Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and activist who worked on the cleanup in Alaska after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Ott said she had been in contact with several Louisiana fishermen suffering a range of ailments —"sore throats, burning headaches, burning eyes, skin rashes, nausea, dizziness" — that track with those suffered in the aftermath of the Valdez spill. The dispersants, she says, compound the health risks created by exposure to crude oil.
"This is like throwing kerosene on a fire," she said.
BP has sprayed more than 800,000 gallons of dispersant into the Gulf since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20. At the same time, the oil giant has been enlisting the paid help of Gulf fishermen, whose fleet of hundreds of boats provides them broad access to areas affected by the spill.
BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" program employs commercial fishermen to hem in surface oil and help clean oil clumping along the coast, creating work for the industry likely to suffer most in the fallout from the oil spill.
But critics say the rudimentary safety training given to the fishermen isn't enough. While BP's "key requirements" include a four-hour training session and a dockside examination by the Coast Guard, the company does not appear to be providing special Hazmat equipment for the ad hoc cleanup crews.
"We are not seeing correct personal protection equipment," said Clint Guidry, secretary of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, who touted his own experience with toxins from working on oil rigs before he became a fisherman.
Guidry's colleague, Acy Cooper, gave a blunt assessment of the situation faced by fishermen patrolling the Gulf's oily waters.
"They're putting themselves at risk ... [with] nothing to protect themselves," he said Thursday. "Their eyes are burning, their noses are burning, but all of them need to go — they need the money."
The Coast Guard referred inquiries about the health of service members patrolling the Gulf to a unified command team set up by BP. Calls and an e-mail message sent to BP seeking comment about their safety measures were not returned.
Some fishermen aiding in the cleanup are reluctant to speak out against BP in public for fear of losing their temporary jobs, while others are willing to abide the hazards in order to keep earning paychecks from the company, according to fishermen who spoke to FoxNews.com.
"The problem is some of the fishermen don't want to lose the jobs they've got," said George Barisich, head of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association. "Kind of a Catch-22 situation."
Members of Congress are now demanding better safety precautions for fishermen surrounding the use of dispersants in order to protect those involved in the cleanup.
Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee on energy and the environment, criticized BP for ignoring a directive from the Environmental Protection Agency to use less toxic chemicals to help disperse the oil.
"The release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico could be an unprecedented, large and aggressive experiment on our oceans," said Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
"[T]he reality is we know almost nothing about the potential harm from the long-term use of any of these chemicals on the marine environment in the Gulf of Mexico, and even less about their potential to enter the food chain and ultimately harm humans," Markey said in a written statement Sunday.
"Many residents and volunteers are being exposed to hazardous materials on a daily basis, and some will have to travel hours to get treatment at the nearest health care facility," he said in a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services.
"It is imperative that temporary health care clinics be established to provide basic health care services in this geographic area."
Melancon argued that BP should foot the bill for the clinics if any are set up, though it remains unclear how many would be necessary or how long they would be required.
"What is most frightening about the long-term effects of the oil and the dispersant chemicals isn't what we know, it is what we just don't know," said Markey.