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

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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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more