On the growing list of unknowns that surround the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster -- How many barrels are spilling? When will the leak be capped? -- belongs another, less-discussed mystery: How will the chemical soup of gushing crude and dispersants affect the health of cleanup workers, fishermen and others working along the coast?
Testing data released so far by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and BP PLC raised more questions than they answered for scientists and industrial medicine specialists consulted by Greenwire. Meanwhile, the chorus of lawmakers raising alarms about the health hazards of chemical exposure in the Gulf was joined yesterday by House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), who warned BP CEO Tony Hayward that a failure to request full worker monitoring "is irresponsible."
"The magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is unparalleled and the potential health risks for cleanup workers remains largely unknown," Miller wrote to Hayward, urging BP to expand its existing request for a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) hazard evaluation of a portion of Louisiana coastal workers.
NIOSH, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that provides scientific advice to OSHA, sent two teams of hygienists to the Gulf this week to test for chemical exposures of workers burning off collected oil and placing booms to help contain the spill.
As that work begins, BP has released limited test results aimed at tamping down public worries about the number of cleanup workers already reporting adverse symptoms. "It is important to recognise that the risks to the health of people from the chemicals associated with both the crude oil from the leak and the dispersants used to clean up the oil are very low," the company states in a preface to its testing data.
That declaration was not sufficient for Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of U.S. EPA's Science Advisory Board.
"Even in the data BP has posted, there are quite a large number of samples over NIOSH recommended exposure limits and some samples over a limit BP had previously identified as over a level of concern for hydrocarbons," Solomon said.
Noting the lack of details on where BP's worker testing is occurring and what equipment is used, Solomon pointed to a section of the company's government-approved chemical monitoring plan that classifies smaller boats in the Gulf as "reduced priority."
A BP spokesman defended the level of its chemical exposure tests, stating via e-mail that the company has "a team of around 100 industrial hygienists and technicians" in the Gulf. "All results to date are within safe exposure limits" set by OSHA, the spokesman added, including levels for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a broad class of chemicals found in crude oil, pesticides and common solvents such as turpentine.
Yet OSHA does not set specific VOC exposure standards -- and even existing OSHA standards for chemicals likely to linger in the Gulf do not provide an assurance of safety, occupational hygiene experts said.
"I wouldn't use OSHA standards here as the sole measure for decisionmaking for protection of workers," said Steven Markowitz, an environmental science professor at the City University of New York who directed a clinic that treated response workers following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"[Gulf] workers will likely have exposure to mixtures of substances which OSHA standards don't address," he added. "One of the things we learned from the World Trade Center is, when you're unsure, err on the side of protection. Don't err on the side of false reassurance."
BP's tests also show some workers have been exposed to the carcinogen benzene, which came as an unwelcome surprise to an occupational health expert and veteran of the 1989 Exxon Valdez cleanup who agreed to speak candidly on the condition of anonymity.
"They're trying to say it's not that bad, but I'm looking at it and saying, wow -- that would be enough for me to say there's [notable] exposure," this source said, adding that the number of air samples BP has taken is "shockingly low ... you would expect a lot more sampling data, but it can be difficult to take a lot of these samples."
NIOSH sets significantly lower exposure limits than OSHA for several chemicals being monitored in spill cleanup workers, including benzene and 2-butoxyethanol, an ingredient in a dispersant that is no longer used in the Gulf. In addition, several sources noted that OSHA exposure limits are calculated based on an eight-hour day, even though many responders near the leaking well are working much longer shifts.
Hunter College toxicology professor Franklin Mirer said that using OSHA limits to assess chemical exposure in the Gulf "is less than helpful for understanding the health effects being reported" by the workers who have already sought medical treatment.
"If the message here is that OSHA standards are being complied with and large numbers of people are getting sick, that's a lesson about the value of OSHA standards and about the protective measures that ought to be employed," Mirer added, likening the occupational health risks of the oil disaster to those at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11.
BP announced yesterday that it would start burning as much as 10,000 barrels of collected oil per day next week, potentially altering the mix of hydrocarbons and other hazardous chemicals entering the air. Given that the Gulf game plan is changing so rapidly, longtime industrial health official Eileen Senn said worker protection is a more sensitive concern than testing.
"This whole sampling thing, it's just barking up the wrong tree," said Senn, who has more than four decades of experience in occupational hygiene. "I don't feel like workers are being told the risks they're being exposed to."
OSHA has released worker education documents that outline the health risks posed by crude oil contact and dispersant use, and agency officials have publicly pressed BP to release the maximum amount of monitoring data while conducting their own local tests.
But one day after Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called on OSHA to ensure that cleanup workers received respirators, the agency said they were not needed "unless a toxic chemical threat is identified."
A Nadler spokesman called the existing worker-protection responses "all nonsense," adding that the congressman "is continuing to push [OSHA and BP] to do the right thing and avert a public health crisis."
Another potential stumbling block for OSHA's efforts is its lack of jurisdiction beyond 3 miles offshore, where much of the most direct worker exposure to hydrocarbons likely is occurring. OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab told lawmakers yesterday that the agency has no plans to press for broader sway offshore.