Video: Concerns grow over oil-related health risks

  1. Transcript of: Concerns grow over oil-related health risks

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Grand Isle, Louisiana): Back here in southern Louisiana , one of the big worries here on the Gulf Coast , beyond cleaning up the oil, the health threat of this disaster to the people who live here. Our report tonight from our chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman .

    Ms. JULIE HEBERT: We were really disheartened and saddened because...

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Julie Hebert has been coming to Grand Isle for the fishing for years, but this time she knew immediately something was wrong.

    Ms. HEBERT: Had tremendous nausea, a headache -- a headache that lasted for two days. And the burning -- like I have burning in my eyes.

    SNYDERMAN: The oil spill poses potential health risks for people all over this region. Chemicals from the oil and oil dispersants have now been documented in the air and water. While the EPA says its monitoring shows no elevated levels, the chemical effects on the human body can be extensive. Crude oil can affect every organ in the body. When it comes in close contact with the skin, it can cause burns or blistering. Within seconds of being inhaled, it hits the brain, causing dizziness and headaches. In the lungs, people can experience shortness of breath and wheezing, which forces the heart to pump harder. From the lungs it passes into the bloodstream, where it targets the liver and kidneys. Health officials are testing seafood for oil contamination.

    Dr. LUANN WHITE (Tulane University): If you eat oil-tainted seafood, you might get an upset stomach, but you're not going to get deathly ill.

    SNYDERMAN: To mitigate potential damage, the federal government has now extended the fishing ban to more than 88,000 square miles, shutting down fisheries in Louisiana , Alabama , Mississippi and now parts of Florida . In a normal year, more than a billion pounds of seafood are harvested from the Gulf of Mexico . Renee Vega says the regulars are still coming in for shrimp at her family's restaurant, even though they've had to raise the price.

    Ms. RENEE VEGA: We'll keep our business as long as we can.

    SNYDERMAN: But she worries how long they can hold out. And as people around here hold their breath, still federal agencies and locals maintain the fish coming from these waters are safe, but the question really, Brian , is, looming over everyone, just for how long?

    WILLIAMS: That's right . The long term.

    SNYDERMAN: You bet.

    WILLIAMS: Dr. Nancy Snyderman , thank you,

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updated 6/3/2010 11:17:15 AM ET 2010-06-03T15:17:15

For days now, Dr. Damon Dietrich and other physicians have seen patients come through their emergency room at West Jefferson Medical Center with similar symptoms: respiratory problems, headaches and nausea.

In the past week, 11 workers who have been out on the water cleaning up oil from BP’s blown-out well have been treated for what Dietrich calls “a pattern of symptoms” that could have been caused by the burning of crude oil, noxious fumes from the oil or the dispersants dumped in the Gulf to break it up. All workers were treated and released.

“One person comes in, it could be multiple things,” he said. “Eleven people come in with these symptoms, it makes it incredibly suspicious.”

Few studies have examined long-term health effects of oil exposure. But some of the workers trolling Gulf Coast beaches and heading out into the marshes and waters have complained about flu-like symptoms — a similar complaint among crews deployed for the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

BP and U.S. Coast Guard officials have said dehydration, heat, food poisoning or other unrelated factors may have caused the workers’ symptoms. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is investigating.

Brief contact with small amounts of light crude oil and dispersants are not harmful. Swallowing small amounts of oil can cause upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea. Long-term exposure to dispersants, however, can cause central nervous system problems, or do damage to blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

In the six weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers, an estimated 21 million to 45 million gallons of crude has poured into the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of BP contractors have fanned out along the Gulf, deploying boom, spraying chemicals to break up the oil, picking up oil-soaked debris and trying to keep the creeping slick out of the sensitive marshes and away from the tourist-Mecca beaches.

Commercial fisherman John Wunstell Jr. spent a night on a vessel near the source of the spill and left complaining of a severe headache, upset stomach and nose bleed. He was treated at the hospital, and sued — becoming part of a class-action lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court in New Orleans against BP, Transocean and their insurers.

Wunstell, who was part of a crew burning oil, believes planes were spraying dispersant in the middle of the night — something BP disputes.

“I began to ache all over ...” he said in the affidavit. “I was completely unable to function at this point and feared that I was seriously ill.”

Dozens of complaints, most from spill workers, have been made related to oil exposure with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said spokeswoman Olivia Watkins, as well as with the Louisiana Poison Center, clinics and hospitals. Workers are being told to follow federal guidelines that recommend anyone involved in oil spill cleanup wear protective equipment such as gloves, safety glasses and clothing.

Michael J. Schneider, an attorney who decided against filing a class-action lawsuit in the 1990s involving the Valdez workers, said proving a link between oil exposure and health problems is very difficult.

“As a human being you listen to enough and you’ve got to believe they’re true,” he said. “The problem is the science may not be there to support them ... Many of the signs and symptoms these people complained of are explainable for a dozen different reasons — it’s certainly coincidental they all shared a reason in common.”

Similar to the Valdez cleanup, there have been concerns in the Gulf that workers aren’t being supplied with enough protective gear. Workers have been spotted in white jumpsuits, gloves and booties but no goggles or respirators.

“If they’re out there getting lightheaded and dizzy every day then obviously they ought to come in, and there should be respirators and other equipment provided,” said LuAnn White, director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health. She added that most of the volatile components that could sicken people generally evaporate before the oil reaches shore.

BP PLC’s Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said reports of workers getting sick are being investigated but noted that no one has pinpointed the cause. Suttles said workers were being given “any safety equipment” needed to do their jobs safely.

Unlike with Exxon Valdez, in the Gulf, the oil has been lighter, the temperatures warm and humid, and there have been hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals used to break up the oil.

Court records showed more than 6,700 workers involved in the Exxon Valdez clean up suffered respiratory problems which the company attributed to a viral illness, not chemical poisoning.

Dennis Mestas represented the only known worker to successfully settle with Exxon over health issues. According to the terms of that confidential settlement, Exxon did not admit fault.

His client, Gary Stubblefield, spent four months lifting workers in a crane for 18 hours a day as they sprayed the oil-slicked beaches with hot water, which created an oily mist. Even though he had to wipe clean his windshield twice a day, Stubblefield said it never occurred to him that the mixture might be harming his lungs.

Within weeks, he and others, who wore little to no protective gear, were coughing and experiencing other symptoms that were eventually nicknamed Valdez crud. Now 60, Stubblefield cannot get through a short conversation without coughing and gasping for breath like a drowning man. He sometimes needs the help of a breathing machine and inhalers, and has to be careful not to choke when he drinks and eats.

Watching the Gulf situation unfold, he says, makes him sick.

“I just watch this stuff everyday and know these people are on the very first rung on the ladder and are going to go through a lot of misery,” said Stubblefield, who now lives in Prescott, Ariz.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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