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May-06-2010 16:38printcomments

Gulf Oil Spill's Health Risks

A contractor is putting together a containment dome to capture oil from Gulf oil spill.

Satellite image of the oil spill courtesy: USGS
Satellite image of the oil spill courtesy: USGS

(SALEM, Ore.) - On April 20th, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig went up in flames some 50 miles southeast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers. Major efforts are underway to contain the massive Gulf oil spill.

Crews for contractor Wild Well Control put the finishing touches on the 100-ton containment dome this week. A barge started to haul the dome 50 miles offshore this morning. It will take two days to lower the dome some 5,000 feet to cover the gusher.

Have all the workers involved in the cleanup been briefed on the environmental hazards of exposure to crude oil and other chemicals and provided personal protective clothing?

Earlier this week, CNN reported the spill covering an area about the size of Puerto Rico. Efforts are underway to disperse the oil by injecting chemicals into the underwater gusher.

The best short term solution is to cap the gusher. If the containment doom fails, then efforts will be made to drill a second well to cut off the gusher. This could take several months to become operational.

Based on the history of prior oil spills, the environmental and economic impact of an oil spill this size are potentially catastrophic.

Because of the water pressure at 5,000 feet, the dome may not work, but experts said this is the best short term solution to check the gusher. The dome, if all goes well, could be fired up early next week, funneling the oil into a tanker. Keep your fingers crossed.

“We don’t know for sure” whether the equipment will work, said BP spokesman Bill Salvin. “What we do know is that we have done extensive engineering and modeling and we believe this gives us the best chance to contain the oil, and that’s very important to us.”

According to an AP report on May 3rd, Rep. Ed Markeym (D-Mass.) said “industry officials told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the worst-case scenario is 60,000 barrels a day, or 2.5 million gallons per day, but the BP told the Congressional committee that, “the more likely scenario if the leak gets worse is 40,000 barrels, or 1.7 million gallons.” If this happens, change ‘scenario’ to the more meaningful term ‘your worst nightmare.’

An informed source advised that more action needs to be taken by government to inform cleanup workers on the risks of exposure to crude oil, excluding any pregnant women from the cleanup workforce, and providing personal protective clothing to workers.

Gulf cleanup workers can take a lesson from the experience of veterans exposed to carcinogens in contaminated soil and water. Many veterans, for example, now suffer from cancer and other serious illnesses due to exposure to contaminates like trichloroethylene (TCE) and failure to wear personal protective equipment while working with toxic chemicals.

An informed source said that workers involved in the Gulf oil spill cleanup need to be thoroughly briefed on the proper techniques to reduce their exposure risks to crude oil, provided with personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, respirators, and water repellant clothing, and because of the risks to the unborn, pregnant women should not be included in any of the cleanup work.

Waterkeeper Alliance is a world-wide association of clean water advocates, whose mission is to protect every major watershed around the world. The organization was founded in 1999 by environmental attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and several veteran Waterkeepers.

The following Press Release from Waterkeeper Alliance on the Gulf oil spill called for testing and monitoring of oil’s effects to protect public health.


Call for Testing and Monitoring of Oil’s Effects to Protect Public Health

IRVINGTON, NY – May 6, 2010 – Waterkeeper Alliance, the global environmental organization, and its member organizations on the Gulf Coast, are alerting local authorities to the health dangers that may be caused by oil from the BP disaster, which is expected to hit Mississippi’s Cat Island and Ship Island with high tide later today. The groups warn that the oil and its fumes are highly toxic and will have negative health impacts on those exposed to it, especially volunteers, workers, those with respiratory ailments, the elderly, and the children of the Gulf Coast.

A fact sheet on the demonstrated impacts to human health from exposure to crude oil has been provided by Dr. Michael Harbut, Karmanos Cancer Institute, and Dr. Kathleen Burns of Sciencecorps, outlining the dangerous health hazards posed by oil and oil fumes. Significant health risks and impacts include:

  • Visible effects such as skin damage, headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, coughing, respiratory difficulty, chemical pneumonitis, and other health problems.
  • Serious effects without obvious immediate symptoms including liver and kidney disease, lung damage, immune system suppression, abnormal hormone levels, infertility, anemia, nerve damage, mutations, cancer, and other serious health problems.
  • Serious risk to pregnant women, both to their own health and to the fetus’s, including abnormal growth and development, skeletal deformities and other birth defects.
  • Extreme risk to children, especially newborns, who are very vulnerable to toxic chemicals in crude oil due to incompletely formed immune and detoxification systems. They may experience abnormal growth, neurocognitive damage, cancer and other health conditions.
  • Those with preexisting medical conditions can see a worsening of those diseases due to even short-term exposure.

Whether health damage occurs depends on individual characteristics and exposure levels, but health experts agree that no exposure is free of heath risks. There is no “safe” level of exposure to carcinogens such as benzene; crude oil contains multiple carcinogens and mutagens.

“It is incumbent upon scientists and physicians who know the diseases and suffering that poisons can cause to warn those in danger of exposure, yet political and economic pressures often prevent those in Government from providing full and accurate health hazard information, even when lives are at stake,” says Dr. Harbut. “We cannot sit idly by and let this happen. In my work with people exposed to crude oil, I have seen cancers and other serious illnesses. Benzene can cause leukemia, and many other chemicals have equally serious consequences. I hope that accurate information on the hazards of crude oil will improve protections for workers and the public, and avoid unnecessary suffering and death.”

Waterkeeper Alliance’s Gulf Coast groups – Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper and Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Alabama’s Mobile Baykeeper, and Florida’s Emerald Coastkeeper and Apalachicola Riverkeeper – are now collaborating with their communities up and down the coast to mitigate the effects of the massive spill on fragile coastal ecosystems. The Waterkeepers, who are uniquely connected to and deeply involved in the vital fishing and coastal communities of the Gulf, are also turning their attention on how to best communicate with the public in order to protect coastal and inland residents’ health.

“Our community is facing the unknown with little to no help, information or protection,” says Casi Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper. “It is unfathomable that the air quality monitoring isn’t happening on every street corner and available on every Web site. Everything the authorities omit or hide puts our families at greater risk for serious, potentially long-term health impacts.”

“We know that the fragile gulf environment and our coastal communities will be hurt by BP’s disaster for years to come,” said Paul Orr, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. “This event is unprecedented; we cannot afford to assume anything about its effects. It is absolutely vital that intensive, long-term, testing and monitoring of the oil’s impacts be conducted by the appropriate agencies so that action can be taken to restore the environment and, most importantly, protect human health.”

To speak with a Waterkeeper in your area on the health impacts of the BP oil disaster, please call the contacts listed below.

Waterkeeper Alliance is a global environmental organization uniting more than 190 Waterkeeper programs around the world and focusing citizen advocacy on the issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. More information can be found at

To see what Gulf Coast Waterkeeper are doing to fight the disaster and to find out how you can help, visit:


John Bianchi for Waterkeeper Alliance: 212-576-2700

Sakura Amend for Waterkeeper Alliance: 212-576-2700

Casi Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper: 251-209-4253

Paul Orr, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper: 225-802-9255

Chasidy Hobbs, Emerald Coastkeeper: 850-429-8422

Tracy Kuhns, Louisiana Bayoukeeper: 504-289-7162

Dr. Michael Harbut: (248) 547-9100

Dr. Kathleen Burns: (781) 861-1108

Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. This subject is where Bob intersected with Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. El Toro, a Superfund site, was closed in ’99, and most of the former base sold by the Navy at a public auction in ’05. The base is highly contaminated with organic solvents like trichloroethelyne (TCE) and other chemicals of concern. No veteran, dependent or civilian employee was informed of their possible exposure to toxic chemicals and their health effects. You can email Bob O’Dowd, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address: You can email Bob O’Dowd, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address:

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