Chemicals found in Crude Oil are Showing up in the Blood of Gulf Residents

Chemicals found in crude oil are showing up in the blood of Gulf residents, many of whom have complained of health problems since the BP oil spill, according to a study released by community action group Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

A total of 25 people have been tested in an ongoing analysis by the Subra Company, a firm that provides technical assistance to community groups. Study participants include current and previous BP employees and Gulf Coast residents.The study compared the toxicant levels found in the test subjects to the levels found in the general population by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a research program conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. The comparison revealed that the majority of people tested by Subra had elevated levels of the chemicals Ethylbenzene and m,p-Xylene in their blood.
Four individuals had levels of Benzene 11.9 to 35.8 times higher than the NHANES 95th percentile. Benzene, present in crude oil, is a human carcinogen associated with leukemia, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The Subra Company began testing blood samples in August. Funding for the testing was provided through LEAN by private donors and foundations, said Marylee Orr, LEAN’s executive director.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted air sampling for toxicants associated with BP crude oil and dispersants used in the clean-up effort. But tests from off-shore, near-shore and on-shore work environments did not detect chemical levels dangerous to human health.  “Evaporation that occurs during the first 24 to 48 hours after the spill greatly reduces inhalation hazards from the toxic volatile components, such as benzene,” according to OSHA’s website.

Even so, gulf residents may experience headaches and other health concerns. “There may still be health effects, but they may not be illness,” said Mary Hixon, Assistant Professor of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at Brown University. Determining exact cause-and-effect relationships between short-term complaints and chemicals from the spill is difficult, she said.

James Bruce, a Louisiana fisherman and shrimper, took a temporary job with BP patrolling for oil and tar in lakes near the gulf. He said many people are experiencing ongoing flu-like symptoms in the region. “My nose just keeps dripping,” he said.

He did not have direct contact with the oil, and did not wear a respirator while working, but believes he inhaled high levels of the chemicals. “There are a lot of people that got hit with the stuff … that don’t realize it,” he said. 

Many fishermen based along the hardest-hit areas were “geographically stuck,” said Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association. Members of the organization who took temporary jobs with BP were given a minimal amount of safety equipment and training, according to Brooks.
“It was not a question of if the oil was coming, but when,” said Jerry Anderson, a fisherman out of Panama City, FL. But he said he had a positive experience working for BP. Like Bruce, he worked on oil patrol efforts, searching for oil slicks and oil tar.

He called the work an economic windfall, and felt BP provided the necessary training and equipment. “There was a need there, and we were grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “(BP) spared no expense in seeing that the fishermen were taken care of.”

Neither he nor anyone he knew experienced any health issues, but he said that may reflect his distance from the source. The first tar balls were recorded on Panama City beaches on June 19, almost two months after the spill, according to the New York Times.

BP provided temporary clean up workers with safety equipment and training relevant to their job, said Hejdi Feick, general manager of media relations for BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. “All workers were provided with the required personal safety equipment … for their job,” she said.

But because chemicals found in the crude oil can be dispersed inland as far as 100 miles, it is not just those working offshore that are affected, said Subra Company President Wilma Subra. On Jan. 21, nine men and women came to the LEAN offices in Baton Rouge, describing symptoms that include severe headaches, nausea, bleeding from the ears, urinating blood, back pain and respiratory problems, Orr said.

Subra estimated that a total of 30 to 40 people will be tested. The Subra Company has also been taking samples of sediment sludge and has compiled a list of possible health effects of dispersants used by BP in the clean-up, including headaches, nausea and vomiting.

In September, BP committed $10 million to the National Institutes of Health to fund research on long-term public health impacts related to the spill.

But studies of the oil spill’s impact on the health of Gulf Coast residents are hampered by a lack of baseline data, according to the final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Because no comparative data was taken from cleanup workers before or directly following the oil spill, the reliability of long-term health is limited.

“Though health agencies eventually issued personal protective equipment guidelines for response workers and created a registry of these newly trained personnel, they missed the crucial window for screening their baseline physical health before the workers were directly exposed to oil products,” according to the report.

Orr said she and her coworkers had considered the lack of early data, but felt the prevalence and similarity of symptoms experienced by gulf residents raise a strong counterpoint.

Individuals can file for claims for physical injury directly caused by the spill or the cleanup through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, funded by BP. As of January 24th, the facility had paid just over $142,700 in 65 claims for physical injury or death. The vast majority of the payments fell within $5,000. Four were between $5,001 and $25,000, according to its latest online status report.