Failing Health for BP Cleanup Crew

U.S. Navy photo by Patrick Nichols
Those who assisted in Gulf cleanup efforts are now suffering from memory loss, respiratory problems and other issues.
BP has invested millions in campaigns to combat negative publicity and persuade tourists to support beaches and businesses affected by last year’s massive Gulf oil spill. In light of the recent one-year anniversary, the company ran a highly publicized ad stating, “One Year Later. Our Commitment Continues.” But does BP’s commitment to “make it right” include taking care of the thousands who performed the hard work of cleanup?

When the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico over a year ago, some 10,000 fishermen were gathered to assist in cleaning up over 200,000 gallons of spilled oil. Hired by BP as part of the Vessels of Opportunity Program, they took their own boats out to sea to ride through, burn, skim and disperse the oil before it hit the shore.

In an effort to save their livelihoods, most of the fishermen were out within the first few days following the blowout. Fisherman Malcolm Coco said the Gulf was “spewing black…everywhere,” yet response workers like him were denied respirators and were not informed about the toxins they might be inhaling. In fact, workers were reassured that the chemical dispersants being sprayed were perfectly safe.

“I was exposed to those chemicals, which I questioned, and they told me it was just as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid and there was nothing for me to worry about,” said Jamie Simon, who cooked and cleaned for response workers, of the BP bosses at the job site.

Five weeks after the spill, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was the first government agency to test offshore air quality. The Coast Guard didn’t perform their offshore air quality tests until 2 months after the spill.

Both Simon and Coco now suffer from unexplained memory loss.

“Patients have come in with a severe amount of memory loss,” says Louisiana ear, nose and throat physician Dr. Michael Robichaux. He went on to discuss a 27-year-old patient that has had to resort to placing Post-it® notes around his house to combat his forgetfulness.

Fisherman Levy Burnett was assigned by BP to find oil, ride through it and disperse it. Burnett recently called his pastor and in the middle of their conversation forgot who he was talking to. He called his wife to ask who he’d been speaking to, and she thought he was playing a joke on her.

“I can’t remember anything,” says Clayton Matherne, who reported dispersants were “sprayed on top” of the boat he engineered to skim oil during the Gulf disaster.

Dizziness, nausea, vision and respiratory problems have also been reported among fishermen-turned-cleanup workers.

“Always coughing- wake up in the middle of the night coughing,” says Mike Fraser, a lifelong non-smoker who captained his own boat during the relief effort.

Tate Cantrell, who sailed out to assist in Gulf relief efforts in June, was told he would be “fired from the boat” if he wore a respirator. He now suffers from severe headaches, nausea and respiratory problems. “They tried to cover everything up and make it look like it’s all pretty…but look at us now,” he said.

Clayton Matherne bought his own respirator since “BP wouldn’t supply us with any.” But he was told, “If they caught us using them, we were fired.” His health problems, which include loss of vision in one eye, started in May of last year.

“I think I’d be very judicious in employing Vessels of Opportunity in the future,” says retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who led the cleanup effort in the Gulf. “I think they can be used effectively, but I think we need to understand the environment they’re operating in, the impact on the people and the impact on the boats and I would say do we have this right before we take a step forward.”

Young charter boat captain Louis Bayhi helped transport divers and scientists toward BP’s site. Any health complaints made by him or his passengers were dismissed as “sea sickness” by BP. He mentioned many other captains and deckhands with health problems “haven’t come forward” and “don’t know where to turn.”

Marylee Orr, the executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), said many doctors will not acknowledge the possibility of oil as a factor when patients describe their symptoms and medical claims submitted to BP are being denied.

According to BP, “no one should be concerned about their health being harmed by the oil.” The company told the Associated Press that, “Illness and injury reports were tracked and documented during the response, and the medical data indicate they did not differ appreciably from what would be expected among a workforce of this size under normal circumstances.”

But Dr. Robichaux believes there is “no question” his patients’ symptoms are related to contact with oil and dispersants. “The only question is what in this soup of materials is causing the problems,” he said. “Some people have been exposed to all of these chemicals, some only a few, some for long periods of time, some for not very long.”

The chemical benzene, a Group 1 carcinogen found in oil, is one leading suspect. Toxicology tests conducted by LEAN and private doctors show levels of benzene among cleanup workers, divers, fishermen and crabbers as high as 36 times that of the general population. A major study on the health of 55,000 response workers and volunteers is now being conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, but will take 10 years to complete.