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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Prompts Health Worries for Cleanup Crews

May 28, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Gulf Coast oil spill cleanup workers are falling ill. According to the Los Angeles Times, many of the workers – mostly fisherman left unemployed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – have reported severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing.

This sadly, is not surprising. As we’ve reported in the past, such symptoms are typical when oil vapors are inhaled. According to the National Resources Defense Council, various components of crude oil, such as benzene, toluene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, presents risks. All are known carcinogens. Other components of oil, like mercury and lead, are also toxic.

In the case of the Gulf Coast fisherman helping to clean up the oil spill, many have been working long hours around oil and dispersant, the Los Angeles Times said. One fisherman told the Times that while he attended a training class where he was told not to pick up oil-related waste, he wasn’t provided with protective equipment. He wasn’t using gloves, and wore leather boots and regular clothes on his boat. He also said that BP had told workers that the oil would not bother them.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Hospitals, on the other hand, has warned workers to avoid skin contact, and oral cavity or nasal passage exposure to oil spill products, the Times said. The agency advises cleanup workers to wear respiratory protection, gloves and boots.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also warned that the oil is harmful to human and animal health. According to the Times, the agency’s air monitoring has detected strong petroleum odors as far as 50 miles away.

A BP spokesperson told the Times that he was unaware of any health complaints among cleanup workers, and that fisherman were not being deployed in areas that required respirators or protective breathing equipment. He also claimed the company’s monitoring of chemicals like benzene showed levels well within federal safety standards.

While BP doesn’t seem worried, the reports coming in from fisherman have alarmed at least one Louisiana lawmaker. According to The Los Angeles Times, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking the agency’s help providing medical treatment to the fisherman.

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