The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has caused the biggest chemical poisoning crisis in US history, experts say.
|Oil, tar balls, tar mats, and dead animals are still common sights along the Gulf of Mexico [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]|
Just weeks after BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, 2010, Fritzi Presley knew something was very wrong with her health.
The 57-year-old singer/songwriter from Long Beach, Mississippi began to feel sick, and went to her doctor.
“I began getting treatments for bronchitis, was put on several antibiotics and rescue inhalers, and even a breathing machine,” she told Al Jazeera. The smell of chemicals on the Mississippi coastline is present on many days when wind blows in from the Gulf.
Presley’s list of symptoms mirrors what many people living in the areas affected by BP’s oil spill have told Al Jazeera.
“I was having them then, and still have killer headaches. I’m experiencing memory loss, and when I had my blood tested for chemicals, they found m,p-Xylene, hexane, and ethylbenzene in my body.”
The 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf last year was the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, affecting people living near the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
Compounding the problem, BP has admitted to using at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic dispersants, which are banned by many countries, including the UK. According to many scientists, these dispersants create an even more toxic substance when mixed with crude oil.
Dr Wilma Subra, a chemist in New Iberia, Louisiana, has tested the blood of BP cleanup workers and residents.
“Ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene and hexane are volatile organic chemicals that are present in the BP crude oil,” Subra explained to Al Jazeera. “The acute impacts of these chemicals include nose and throat irritation, coughing, wheezing, lung irritation, dizziness, light-headedness, nausea and vomiting.”
Subra explained that exposure has been long enough to create long-term effects, such as “liver damage, kidney damage, and damage to the nervous system. So the presence of these chemicals in the blood indicates exposure”.
Testing by Subra has also revealed BP’s chemicals are present “in coastal soil sediment, wetlands, and in crab, oyster and mussel tissues”.
Pathways of exposure to the dispersants are inhalation, ingestion, and skin and eye contact. Symptoms of exposure include headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitisation, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, genetic mutations, cardiac arrhythmia, and cardiovascular damage. The chemicals can also cause birth defects, mutations, and cancer.
Joseph Yerkes, from Okaloosa Island, Florida, was in BP’s oil clean-up programme for more than two months, during which time he was exposed to oil and dispersants on a regular basis.
“My health worsened progressively,” Yerkes said. “Mid-September  I caught a cold that worsened until I went to a doctor, who gave me two rounds of antibiotics for the pneumonia-like symptoms, and he did blood tests and found high levels of toxic substances in my blood that he told me came from the oil and dispersants.”
Since then, his life has been overrun with health problems and trying to get compensation from BP for his health costs and lost livelihood.
“They’ve [BP] not paid me a dime, and I’m scared,” Yerkes, whose lawyers were told by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was set up by BP to administer compensation payments, that his health claim was “compensable”. Yerkes added, “I’m moving out of my house into a one-bedroom apartment, and have sold just about everything I have. BP is starving us out.”
Yerkes has begun cutting out parts of the detoxification programme his doctor had prescribed for him because he can’t afford it. He then began getting sick again.
“If they [BP] don’t do what they agreed to do, I’m in trouble. “
– Joseph Yerkes
“I don’t know what I’ll do now,” Yerkes added, “Because I’ve spent $50,000 on medical, treatments, supplements, and having to move from the Gulf. If they [BP] don’t do what they agreed to do, I’m in trouble.”
His memory loss has become so bad that Yerkes has tried to adjust his life around it by leaving himself notes. Some days, his body aches so much, and his nausea is so severe, he is unable to get out of bed.
“I consider myself a tough person, but this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” he said.
‘Dying from the inside out’
Presley lives three blocks from the coast with her daughter, 30-year-old Daisy Seal, who has also become extremely sick.
Both of them had their blood tested for the chemicals present in BP’s oil, and six out of the 10 chemicals tested for were present.
|Daisy Seal has had skin rashes, respiratory problems, and two miscarriages, which she attributes to chemicals from BP’s oil and toxic dispersants [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]|
“I started having respiratory problems, a horrible skin rash, headaches, nosebleeds, low energy, and trouble sleeping,” Seal told Al Jazeera. “And I now feel like I’m dying from the inside out.”
Seal, who already has an eight-year-old son, has had two miscarriages in the last year.
“In ‘Generations at Risk’, medical doctor Ted Schettler and others warn that solvents can rapidly enter the human body,” Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist, and Exxon Valdez survivor, told Al Jazeera. “They evaporate in air and are easily inhaled, they penetrate skin easily, and they cross the placenta into fetuses. For example, 2-butoxyethanol [a chemical used in Corexit, an oil dispersant] is a human health hazard substance; it is a fetal toxin and it breaks down blood cells, causing blood and kidney disorders.”
“Solvents dissolve oil, grease, and rubber,” Ott continued. “Spill responders have told me that the hard rubber impellors in their engines and the soft rubber bushings on their outboard motor pumps are falling apart and need frequent replacement. Given this evidence, it should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known.”
Dr Rodney Soto, a medical doctor in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, has been testing and treating patients with high levels of oil-related chemicals in their blood streams.
These chemicals are commonly referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
VOCs released in BP’s oil disaster are toxic and have chronic health effects.
Dr Soto, who is Yerkes’ doctor, is finding high levels of toxic chemicals in every one of the patients he is testing.
“I’m regularly finding between five and seven VOCs in my patients,” Dr Soto told Al Jazeera. “These patients include people not directly involved in the oil clean-up, as well as residents that do not live right on the coast. These are clearly related to the oil disaster.”
While there are many examples of acute exposures, Dr Soto’s main concern is that most residents who are being exposed will only show symptoms later.
“I’m concerned with the illnesses like cancer and brain degeneration for the future,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is very important because a lot of the population down here may not have symptoms. But people are unaware they are ingesting chemicals that are certainly toxic to humans and have significant effect on the brain and hormonal systems.”
The toxic compounds in the oil and dispersants are liposoluble, meaning they have a high affinity for fat, said Dr Soto.
Dr Soto continued: “The human brain is 70 per cent fat. And these will similarly affect the immune cells, intestinal tract, breast, thyroid, prostate, glands, organs, and systems. This is also why this is so significant for children.”
In March the US National Institutes of Health launched a long-range health study of workers who helped clean up after BP’s oil disaster.
According to the NIH, 55,000 clean-up workers and volunteers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida will be checked for health problems, and participants will be followed for up to 10 years.
The study is funded by NIH, which received a $10m “gift” from BP to run the study. BP claims not to be involved in the study, which will cost $34m over the next five years.
But the study focusses mainly on people who participated in the clean-up.
John Gooding, a resident of Pass Christian, Mississippi, began having health problems shortly after the oil spill started. He has become sicker with each passing month, and has moved inland in an effort to escape
|Mississippi resident John Gooding moved away from the coast to minimise his exposure to toxic chemicals [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]|
continuing exposure to the chemicals.
“I can’t live at my home address anymore because it’s too close to the coast,” Gooding told Al Jazeera. “I’m hypersensitive to the pollution, and there is a constant steady chemical smell coming off the Gulf. Even both my dogs had seizures and died.”
Gooding suffers respiratory problems, seizures, and myriad other heath effects. He has filed a claim with BP in hopes of being compensated for his health problems, but it has been denied.
BP hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg and his Washington-based firm, Feinberg Rozen, to manage their compensation fund. BP has paid the firm $850,000 a month to administer the $20bn compensation fund for Gulf residents and fishermen affected by the disaster.
The fund was set up after negotiations between BP and the Obama administration, but over recent months there have been growing concerns among the Gulf Coast’s residents that Feinberg is limiting compensation funds to claimants in order to decrease BP’s liability.
Feinberg told citizen journalism group Bridge the Gulf that he will be calling on “independent experts” to review the validity of the approximately 30 health claims that are currently “in limbo”. Feinberg was unable to name the independent experts, and did not elaborate on the process used to pick them.
In a previous interview, Feinberg said he had received approximately 200 health claims and denied them all for lack of documentation.
“As long as we have people making excuses for them [BP], they’ll continue to get away with it,” Gooding told Al Jazeera, while walking along a Mississippi beach covered in tar balls and dead birds.
Gooding is visibly sick, and chemicals that are used in oil dispersants have been found in his blood, but he won’t go to the doctor.
“I don’t want to put my family in debt, so I’m weighing my options,” he said, “I don’t have health insurance, but I do have life insurance.”
“We were recently in DC with those people protesting the Tar Sands pipeline,” he said. “I was telling those people living near the proposed pipeline, ‘We are your future, because when you have oil spills, this is what your life is going to look like.'”
Dispersants will continue to be used
The US Coast Guard held an Area Contingency Plan meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi on September 7 to discuss the lessons of the BP disaster.
Oil and sheen on a beach in Mississippi, September 2011 [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
Al Jazeera asked Coast Guard Captain John Rose, a sector commander, what has changed regarding the Coast Guard’s dispersant use policy since April 20, 2010.
“We were pre-authorised to use it before, but now we have to get permission from the higher-ups. But it is still in the plan for how we will respond to oil spills in the future,” he said.
During the meeting, Captain Rose continuously referred to the use of dispersants as a “scientific tool” that is “effective in keeping oil from reaching beaches and wildlife”.
Charles Taylor, a resident of nearby Bay St Louis, stood up and announced, “I’ve had bloody diarrhoea nonstop for 45 days, I’m anemic and dehydrated. I’ve had VOC tests done and have ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene, and methelpentates in my blood”.
None of the Coast Guard personnel would address Taylor’s concerns, saying that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss BP.
Taylor asked Captain Rose and the other Coast Guard personnel on the panel, “How much money has BP given you folks? Because it appears to us, who are having health problems, you are being silenced from addressing the dispersant and health issues”.
Untold numbers of Gulf Coast residents continue to struggle with health issues and lack of adequate compensation from BP.
Joseph Yerkes is concerned about his future. “I’m financially destroyed, and my health is bad,” he said. “I’m having to cut off parts of my treatment because I can’t afford it all, and I’m just trying to survive.”
“I’m one step away from being homeless, and not being able to support my daughter and myself,” Yerkes added.
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail
See a photo gallery of the current oil leaks in the Gulf of Mexico.