Ocean Springs, Mississippi – Not long after BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, 2010, Lorrie Williams knew something was very wrong with her health.
She began getting frequent headaches, was experiencing shortness of breath, her eyes were burning, and she was having nightmares.
Williams, her husband Bud Waltman, and their ten-year-old son, Noah, have all tested positive for having chemicals in their blood that are also present in BP’s oil. Her 25-year-old son has been to the emergency room twice for haemorrhaging blood from his nose, and several of their neighbours also have experienced ongoing respiratory problems.
Her two-year-old granddaughter has been sick constantly.
Williams and Waltman, both crab fishers, live less than a kilometre from the Mississippi coast, and blame the illnesses in their family on exposure to chemicals from BP’s oil and the dispersants used to sink it.
“I’m really sick, and I fear that I’m not gonna be here in a year,” Williams told Al Jazeera. “There are days that I can’t get up, and I can’t eat. And I can’t do the things that I used to do, with Bubba, and my grandbaby. And Noah. And then I worry about my mom. And I have nothing to leave them but a crab boat and some crab pots.”
Williams stated that she and her family are not alone.
“There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of other Gulf Coast residents and former oil clean up workers that have also tested positive for having BP’s chemicals in their blood,” she added. “And for many of us, the problem seems to be getting worse with time.”
Volatile organic chemicals
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.
Seemingly 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,” Dr 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.”
Dr Subra explained that exposure has been prolonged 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 Dr 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. According to Dr Riki Ott, 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.
Dr Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist, and Exxon Valdez survivor, told Al Jazeera that these chemicals “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 oil dispersant Corexit] is a human health hazard substance; it is a fetal toxin and it breaks down blood cells, causing blood and kidney disorders”.
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“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.”
In March 2011, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a long-term 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 ten years.
The study is largely funded by the NIH, which received a “gift” from BP to help run the study. BP says it is not involved in the study, which will cost $34m over the next five years.
But the study focuses mainly on people who participated in the clean-up, and does not include coastal residents such as Lorrie Williams and her family.
Al Jazeera asked Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal what his state was doing to safeguard people against chemical poisoning.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Jindal’s office said:
“Coastal residents and response workers will be compensated through the deal reached between the Plaintiff Steering Committee and BP. BP must follow through on making whole [properly compensating]impacted residents and workers who experienced or are still experiencing health impacts as a result of the spill.”
Stuart Smith, a New Orleans lawyer representing more than 1,000 cases against BP, most of them health related, has stronger words about the situation.
“These people have almost identical symptoms to chemical plant and refinery workers that were exposed,” Smith told Al Jazeera. “It’s really sad to me that, in a place like America, that the government itself and BP simply ignored all of these people who are violently ill. They know that a lot of these areas in Louisiana that were impacted are poor areas and a lot of the people don’t have health insurance and they just basically let them blow in the wind and it’s really a disgrace. I think that the decision was made at the highest level of our government to save BP at any cost. And they did not want these people in respiratory gas masks on national television.”
BP, who has only paid out 140 claims for death or injury related to the spill, does not appear to want to acknowledge the scope of the problem, he said.
“I would describe BP’s reaction to the allegations of significant health impacts as like an ostrich. Ostrich syndrome. They are sticking their heads in the sand, they don’t want to hear it. And they don’t want to pay for it, for sure.”
For more than one year, Al Jazeera has interviewed dozens of Gulf Coast residents and clean-up workers who all tested positive for having BP’s chemicals in their blood. So far, they say, finding either proper health treatment or financial compensation from BP has been nearly impossible for most of them.
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail