Last week we interviewed Merle Savage, a foreman at the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill site who experienced a frightening list of health problems after her stint in Alaska. She warned workers at the BP disaster sites to proceed with caution, and for good reason—oil spill sites (and chemical dispersants) are known to cause respiratory and central nervous system issues in cleanup workers. But ProPublica points us to a recently-filed BP document listing worker illness and injuries—and only one concerns "suspected inhalation of crude oil vapors." So what exactly is BP reporting on in its list of 485 incidents?
Some of the incidents mimic the symptoms described by Savage—one worker reported nausea, chest tightness, and an ache in the left shoulder, and another reported chest pain. Others described numbness, rashes after beach cleanup, and three workers were even struck by lightening. But the majority of the incidents were common accidents—splinters, cuts, insect bites, and neck pains.
BP's report may not tell the whole story, however. Another document from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals lists 51 workers with chemical-exposure related complaints, including nausea, vomiting, nose bleeds, diarrhea, and difficulty breathing. The DHH document also describes clusters of complaints. Take this report from May 26, for example:
Seven cleanup workers had been working on a boat, busting oil sheen for two weeks. They experience nausea, headaches, burning throat, and chest pain. They were exposed to fumes they believed to be dispersant. They were transported to West Jefferson Hospital. One was released the same day. Six others were hospitalized (5 for 1 day, 1 for 2 days). An investigation is pending.
Note that this incident is not in BP's report at all—primarily because the report only includes "recordable" illnesses and injuries as defined by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. All of which leads us to believe what we already sort of knew: BP may not be the most reliable source for accurate information on the oil disaster's health consequences.
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