Read This Before You Volunteer to Clean Up the BP Oil Disaster

<a href=Merle Savage" />

Merle Savage has a wheezy, guttural smoker's cough. But the 71-year-old former Alaska resident and author of Silence in the Sound never smoked a day in her life. She did, however, spend four months as a general foreman during the Exxon Valdez oil spill recovery project in 1989. And she has a message for anyone working at the BP oil disaster sites: "You've got to use your common sense. Breathing crude oil is toxic."

Savage moved to Alaska in 1988—just one year before the Exxon Valdez oil spill ravaged Prince William Sound. After the spill, Savage decided to take action. She was assigned to clean oil-coated rocks on the beach, but says that Exxon never provided legitimate safety training. And since Exxon never told her that breathing crude oil was toxic, she didn't think twice about spraying hot water onto the oily rocks.

Exxon Valdez cleanup

When the dizziness and vomiting set in, Savage assumed it was just the flu. "We were housed in close quarters, and I could see how the flu could go around repeatedly," she says. The "flu" continued as Savage moved into a position as general foreman on the spill's cleanup barges. But she didn't realize quite how much her health had deteriorated until leaving the cleanup operation.

"I was in the doctor's office continually," Savage says. "She always heard my stomach rolling and one day she said 'Have you eaten anything toxic or had any contaminated water?' I said no, never thinking it was the crude oil." Savage went on to develop a frightening list of symptoms: cirrhosis of the liver (she doesn't drink), rheumatoid arthritis, constant diarrhea, and respiratory problems.

When Savage was contacted by Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist specializing in oil pollution, she finally put the pieces together. According to Ott, respiratory and central nervous system problems are common among oil spill cleanup workers. In a recent blog post, she explains her concerns:

Oil spill cleanups are regulated as hazardous waste cleanups because oil is, in fact, hazardous to health. Breathing oil fumes is extremely harmful...Unfortunately, Exxon called the short-term symptoms, "the Valdez Crud," and dismissed 6,722 cases of respiratory claims from cleanup workers as "colds or flu" using an exemption under OSHA’s hazardous waste cleanup reporting requirements. I know of many who have been disabled by their illnesses – or have died.

The same symptoms—headache, nausea, coughing—are being reported by workers cleaning up the BP oil disaster. Savage, now retired and living in Las Vegas, hopes today's oil spill workers know what's really going on with their health. "Had I known the truth, I wouldn't have gone to clean up the spill," she says. "I am living and breathing now, but it's not by the grace of Exxon."

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email

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  • Bernard wilson

    i worked on the gulf oil spill and now that i take the time to sit down and read what other's have to say but it's to late for me i can't breed at all now i thought it was a cold are the common flu so i shrugged  it off and one day i had to be rushed to the er and they told me that i had upper respiratory infection acute bronchitis and chronic cough and weezing and also shortness of breath head aches vomiting and dizziness and more i never had these things wrong with me until after i worked on the gulf spill if i would have know this from the start and there telling us that it was safe that fast money not worth my life so how do i get help i'am only 33 years old with kids that need me in there life so if there's any kind of help that you can give me please i need my symptom's only getting worst

  • connie stanson

    Thank You so very much for this information, I am out of state right now, but heading back in two days. I live in Florida. I was going to help clean up the birds that are flying into the oil all the time. But not now. I feel bad for the wildlife but I am afraid now to handle them. This is very sad. Thank You again and God Bless You and Yours.

  • Merle Savage

    Thanks Ariel for putting out the alert to the Gulf cleanup workers. Together, we can make a difference in their lives.