Many of the fishermen who signed up to work for BP cleaning up the oil signed contracts that forbid them from talking to the press. Perhaps for that reason, reports of illnesses have been somewhat slow to emerge. Last week, the wives of some of the fishermen spoke out publicly about the symptoms their husbands were experiencing. This week, some fishermen are starting to come forward. In this WDSU TV interview, one of the fishermen reports feeling drugged, disoriented, tingling, fatigued, and also reporting shortness of breath and cough. These are symptoms that are consistent with what one might expect from exposure to hydrocarbons in oil.
There are also disturbing photos that have been posted on the internet and in the LA Times, showing clean-up workers on beaches in regular street clothes without even the benefit of gloves. These people are in contact with the weathered oil (as opposed to fresh oil bubbling up from the continuing leak). Weathered oil is considered less dangerous than fresh oil because the toxic vapors have dissipated, but it is not benign. Skin contact with even the weathered oil is very damaging, so gloves should be required. In addition, the oil can contaminate shoes and clothing, and could then be worn home where it could pose a risk to young children. The oil needs to be cleaned up, but it should be done right.
This coming week, fishermen from Alaska who were involved in the clean-up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill are coming down to the Gulf Coast to meet with local fishermen. The goal is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I blogged previously about scientific studies of health effects in clean-up workers from prior oil spills. So it's encouraging to see that the workers are sharing stories. The only way to keep people safe is to learn from history, and to force BP to act responsibly (or is that an oxymoron at this point?) One of my NRDC colleagues will be at the meeting this week, and she will be gathering information on what's happening out there. Stay tuned for updates in the effort to protect the clean-up workers.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.