BP oil spill and ongoing health problems

Living on Earth

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.

It’s been more than six months since BP finally capped its runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. But now come reports of a wave of illnesses and puzzling symptoms from some residents along the Gulf Coast. Their blood contains high levels of chemicals found in oil and the dispersants that were used to clean up the mess. Some had worked cleaning up the oil, others lived in or had visited places where oil washed ashore. All complained of mysterious ailments that arose after the spill.

Robin Young was one of those who spoke out. When the spill started, Young helped form a citizen group called Guardians of the Gulf. At first, the group was not focused on health issues. Then, people, including Young, started getting sick.

Young says symptoms started after she spent a day near the water in June and she still hasn’t fully recovered. She heard from others in her community and across the Gulf coast with similar problems. She told PRI’s Living on Earth:

We have way too many people that are sick with very odd symptoms that they have never experienced before in their life. So there’s something going on! And it’s all the way up and down the coast and it seems to be in the predominant areas where the oil continues to come onshore.

Many residents are now suffering from upper respiratory symptoms and severe rashes, according to nearby doctor Rodney Soto. “I tell you, people are suffering a great degree,” he told Living on Earth. “We are barely scratching the surface in regards to what else we are going to see and I don’t think the medical community is well prepared to handle this.”

Not everyone is fully convinced that the health problems are caused by the oil spill. “I would not doubt that these people are ill,” Tony Kinnon, the mayor of Orange Beach, told Living on Earth. “But I would say for them to adamantly say the oil spill made them ill — they’re gonna have to present evidence.”

To get that kind of evidence, researchers have started blood tests for chemicals. Robin Young got her blood tested. She said, “They found that I had ethylbenzene, isooctane, 2-butyrol, 3-butyrol, the hexane levels were over the top — so the lab even put a big H by it. It was scary; it was depressing. And then I got mad.”

Young’s group paid for more blood sampling. The Louisiana Environmental Action network asked biochemist and MacArthur grant winner Wilma Subra to analyze the results. The blood samples came from cleanup workers, crabbers, a diver who’d been in oiled water, and at least two children who live on the coast. Subra compared the levels of volatile organic compounds in those samples to a national database of VOC’s in blood compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, and found:

They’re as much as 5 to 10 times what you’d find in the normal population. And again, these are chemicals that relate back to chemicals in the BP crude and the dispersants.

Many of the chemicals are linked to serious health problems. But this blood sampling alone does not prove a connection between the illnesses and the oil. In March the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences plans to start enrolling Gulf spill cleanup workers in a long-term health study. The principal investigator is Dale Sandler, chief of epidemiology at NIEHS. She hopes to track some 55,000 subjects for at least five years. Sandler’s study has funding, thanks in part to BP.

But tracking that many people will take serious trust on the part of the participants. And trust, around the Gulf Coast, is hard to come by. Kinnon told Living on Earth:

The bottom line is very few people trust governmental agencies. They think there’s this incestuous relationship between BP and the government, and I tend to agree with them.

Robin Young echoed that statement, saying: “I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist – that’s what I’m starting to feel like. Because it’s hard to believe that something like this is going on in the United States and no one’s helping.”


Hosted by Steve Curwood, “Living on Earth” is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about “Living on Earth.”

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