Health Crisis Rocks the Gulf in Aftermath of the Spill, But Feds and BP Turn a Blind Eye

Health Crisis Rocks the Gulf in Aftermath of the Spill, But Feds and BP Turn a Blind Eye

Brad Jacobson
May 8, 2011

Natural Society

Contrary to many national stories covering the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a health crisis in the region has developed among exposed workers and residents. And it’s not so “mysterious.”

In recent meetings with public health, medical and chemical experts in Louisiana — the Gulf state hardest hit by the worst offshore oil spill in history — AlterNet found a striking symmetry between debilitating chronic symptoms being reported among those sickened and the known effects of chemicals in the toxic brew of oil, dispersant and burned crude to which they were exposed.

One year later, persistent coughing, wheezing, headaches, fatigue, loss of balance, dry itchy eyes, runny nose, nosebleeds, rectal bleeding, skin lesions, gastrointestinal pain, cardiac arrhythmia and memory loss are common complaints — all consistent with exposure to chemicals released in the water and air since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast.

In addition to these physical heath issues, mental health experts are finding an increase in associated psychological distress, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are fueled by converging concerns over health, loss of livelihood and general insecurity about the future.

While long-term studies are underway, such as the National Institute of Health’s projected 10-year monitoring of 55,000 cleanup workers, experts stressed both the need for those affected to be assessed for chemical exposure immediately and lamented the lack of access to medical doctors trained to diagnose and treat such exposure.

Nearly every source AlterNet interviewed in Louisiana called the health situation “a mess” and said it is not being adequately addressed.

Current Manifestations of Physical and Psychological Impacts

Dr. Mike Robichaux, a highly regarded ear, nose and throat doctor in Raceland, Louisiana, is seeing many of the most commonly reported physical symptoms, and some more unique, in scores of patients he’s treated pro bono at night, working nearly round the clock after regular office hours.

On average, Robichaux, who’s also a former state senator, said he sees four or five new patients a week with health complaints that manifested after the oil spill.

Recently, he’s found a spike in “absolutely fantastic” amounts of memory loss. He said it took him awhile to figure it out because many of his patients we’re forgetting to mention the problem until their wives asked Robichaux if they’d discussed it.

University of Maryland School of Medicine neurologist Lynn Grattan, who was in Raceland to begin a study on Robichaux’s patients, said of their memory loss, “It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

Additionally, Robichaux is detecting a pattern of extremes in blood sugar levels that he hasn’t observed in his thirty-seven years of practicing medicine.

“People are coming in with dizziness and they’re having these bizarre symptoms of heart rates racing up and down,” he said. “Their blood sugars are shooting way up and then screeching down in a much more exaggerated fashion than anything I’ve ever seen.”

He believes “there’s no question” these symptoms and others he’s treating are attributable to the oil and dispersant because “it’s such an exaggerated thing” and virtually all of his patients say they had none of these health problems before the spill.

James Diaz, director of environmental and occupational health sciences at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, said he’s “not surprised at all” by many of the current chronic symptoms being reported — respiratory, dermatologic, ocular and neurological — because they are consistent with exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, chemicals in crude oil and dispersants.

Diaz, who worked for 16 years as an occupational medical doctor on an emergency flight team that treated injured offshore oil workers and is an expert on chronic and carcinogenic effects of chemical exposure, believes the “most serious” early phase chronic illnesses will be neurological.

“These agents are water soluble, attack the irritative membranes,” he explained, “Then when they get into the body, they’re lipophilac, which means they love to concentrate in tissues that have a lot of fat — the brain, the covering of nerves.”

Diaz said that, as opposed to respiratory, skin and ocular disorders, there are few options for treating neurological disorders, which include reported symptoms such as balance issues and memory loss.

“Once we get into central nervous system disorders, there’s not a lot we can do,” he said grimly.

Since late last year, Wilma Subra, a chemist and microbiologist in New Iberia, Louisiana, has analyzed approximately 150 blood samples of sickened workers and residents across the Gulf Coast — from New Iberia to the Florida Panhandle — and has found alarming elevated levels of toxic chemicals consistent with those in BP crude, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene.

Subra, a McArthur Genius Award-winning environmental scientist and former consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency, analyzed these samples serving as technical advisor to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

She and Marylee Orr, executive director of LEAN, continue to receive calls daily from cleanup workers, divers and coastal residents whose list of ailments continues to grow but mirror most of the respiratory, dermatological, ocular and neurological disorders repeatedly reported to AlterNet in its meetings with sources in Louisiana.

“Marylee and I have been the voice of the fishers [who volunteered in the cleanup] from the very beginning, when they weren’t protected, they weren’t trained,” said Subra. “Now we’re the voice of the sick people.”

A recently published health survey of 954 Louisiana residents living in seven oil-impacted coastal communities found that nearly three-quarters of those who believed they were exposed to crude oil or dispersant reported feeling symptoms. Nearly half of all respondents reported an “unusual increase in health symptoms” consistent with exposure, including coughing, skin and eye irritation, and headaches.

Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and the environmental justice group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, both based in New Orleans, jointly conducted the on-the-ground survey.

Sophia Curdumi, the program manager of Tulane’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and a public health researcher at the university who took part in the survey, said that the symptoms the residents described to her and her colleagues were remarkably consistent with what she’s hearing elsewhere.

“Skin rashes, a lot of upper respiratory issues, increased mucous, coughing, perpetual runny nose,” Curdumi said. “I’ve had folks say that they’ve had to start using inhalers were they didn’t have to before. And eye problems — itchy, runny eyes. Headaches. And fatigue.”

She continued, “Fatigue is the one thing that keeps coming up. People are just saying, ‘I’m so tired, my husband’s so tired, everyone’s so exhausted all the time.'”

Curdumi then noted that such fatigue might be attributable to a combination of chemicals in the environment and also the increased stress because their livelihoods are in jeopardy.

Howard Osofsky, head of the psychiatry department at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, supported Curdumi’s insight.

Regarding attendant psychological manifestations from the disaster, Osofsky said that it’s difficult to pinpoint how much is related to stress and how much is related to environment.

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