BP PLC's monitoring of offshore oil-leak workers in the Gulf of Mexico may be overstating the potential chemical exposures facing those workers due to an emphasis on sampling the most vulnerable populations, according to the company and the Obama administration.
After the oil giant published a summary that showed a controversial chemical ingredient in a now-discontinued dispersant was present in more than 20 percent of offshore worker samples, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) pressed BP to release its detailed data -- which verified that sampling for the substance was uniformly below government limits.
The debate over the chemical in question, 2-butoxyethanol, carried particularly high stakes because of its association with health problems experienced by cleanup workers during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. But OSHA's statement on the offshore sampling results indicated that, in general, BP's chemical monitoring was focused on workers likely to experience the highest risks.
"Sampling is not done randomly and is not necessarily representative of all exposed workers; in general, sampling is performed on workers who are most likely to have the heaviest exposures," the agency said last week.
Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary at OSHA, expanded on the sampling through a spokesman. "[O]ur understanding is that they use their judgment to determine which worker populations and operations have the highest potential for exposure," he said last week.
BP spokesman Bill Salvin echoed that emphasis on potentially vulnerable workers in an interview last week, explaining that "you take samples and you test for things where you expect there might be exposure."
Even as the Macondo wellhead remains capped, halting the nearly three-month flow of crude into the Gulf, the uncertain long-term health consequences for cleanup workers and residents remain on Congress' radar. During House testimony last week by Kenneth Feinberg, the A-list lawyer who manages BP's $20 billion fund for oil-leak claims, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked what would happen to a resident who settled with BP for economic damages, only to later experience negative health symptoms that could be attributable to oil exposure.
"That may be rare, God willing, here," said Nadler, one of 16 lawmakers to endorse a petition calling for more respirators in the Gulf (Greenwire, July 9). "In [the aftermath of] 9/11, it wasn't rare."
Feinberg acknowledged that Nadler's question was "the toughest of all" to resolve.
'An occupational health magic trick'?
BP's release of detailed sampling data met with praise from some experienced industrial hygienists but failed to assuage critics who remained skeptical that worker exposures could be so low given the amount of oil and dispersants used to battle the leak.
Rory O'Neill, a union safety officer and occupational health professor in the United Kingdom, questioned the viability of worker sampling that could overrepresent the risk of chemicals to offshore populations.
"If the sample was biased to those 'most likely to have the heaviest exposures' and the majority of these are recording no exposure at all, BP is performing an occupational health magic trick that is beyond [its] safety 'operating management systems' in every other sphere," wrote O'Neill, editor of the liberal-leaning Hazards magazine.
"If the claims for this system had any element of truth," he added, "we'd never have seen Deepwater Horizon kill 11."
Eileen Senn, a longtime worker-safety official who has emerged as a leading BP gadfly since the leak began, pointed to 10 separate shortcomings in the quality of the company's data release, including the move to sample for 11 chemicals when many more substances are potentially present in Gulf air. Senn also criticized the company's blending of samples taken where exposures were likely to be low -- in areas where crude or dispersant was not nearby -- with areas where exposure was more likely due to the presence of fresh oil.
"Given the 200 million gallons of oil spilled, 10 million gallons of oil burned, and 2 million gallons of dispersant applied, BP couldn't possibly make a credible assertion that there is nothing for cleanup workers to fear in the Gulf air," Senn wrote in an op-ed yesterday. "They need the illusion of science to make their audacious claim seem believable."
Senn's concerns about the dilution of worker sampling are shared by another fellow veteran industrial hygienist who worked on offshore monitoring for one of BP's contractors.
This contractor, who has more than 30 years of experience in the field, asked to remain anonymous in order to be candid about his experience. Different categories of worker sampling are "all mixed in, so it becomes gobbledygook," he said, describing days of riding on boats where no oil was spotted but monitoring was taken regardless. "You're sampling for stuff that's not there."
On one occasion, he recalled, the monitoring equipment he was using registered no chemicals even though "I was standing over a pool of" oil dripping from a boom. "The booms are usually covered in old oil," the contractor said. "When you raise the booms, you've got stuff dripping ... as it begins to dry, you usually get something. The instrument may have been wrong for that."
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