Respirators for Some Gulf Workers, Finally!

The Unified Command of the oil spill clean-up response announced Thursday that some of the workers will finally be provided with respirators. This welcome announcement was tempered by the contrary assertion - also from the Unified Command - that the workers don't really need respirators. In a CNN story today, "Chris Coulon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Unified Command, said air sampling is being conducted and there is "no indication at all" that the respirators being distributed are necessary."

Apart from the obvious question of why someone from the Department of Agriculture is making pronouncements about the need (or lack of need) for respirators for oil clean-up workers, I really have to wonder again about what's going on out there. There are still major gaps in the publicly-available data, and there are still these contradictory pronouncements coming out of BP and the various federal agencies.

The Unified Command announcement says: "respirators will be provided to response workers engaged in the source control activities and for vessels involved in burning crude oil. These respirators are provided as part of a comprehensive respiratory protection program. Respirators only need to be worn when air-monitoring results indicate an elevated level of air contaminants, or when professional judgment determines there is potential exposure, or when workers are reporting health effects or symptoms."

That's a good first step toward protecting workers. It still doesn't address the fishermen hired by BP who are out there skimming the oil from their own boats. I'm still wondering if they're adequately protected. Now they're being encouraged to wear paper masks to reduce the odors. Is that enough? We don't have the data to know for sure.

Here are the latest data BP is reporting from offshore:

Results are posted from April 27 – June 1 for benzene, total hydrocarbons, and 2-Butoxyethanol. Nearly 65% (324 out of 499) samples had detectable levels of hydrocarbons and 15% (75 out of 399) had levels greater than 10ppm. 6 samples exceed 100 ppm which in a previous monitoring summary was labeled as the action limit -- this label appears to have been removed in the most recent summary document. No information is given on where these samples, or the 5 found to be between 50 and 100 ppm, were taken.

20 (4%) samples had detectable levels of benzene with measurements up to 0.5 ppm.

20% (29 out of 148) samples had detectable levels of 2-Butoxyethanol with measurements up to 10 ppm.  This range encompasses the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for occupational exposure to 2-Butoxyethanol of 5 ppm. The document cites the OSHA PEL for 2-Butoxyethanol of 50 ppm, which I have already explained is not health-protective. As with the benzene and hydrocarbon results, these readings don't say where they were taken, and who was in the area.

Are the latest respirator recommendations adequate to protect clean-up workers? I'm not sure they are, but I'm glad that at least some of the brave workers out there will have the benefit of respirators if they need them. More than 70 days into this spill, it's about time!