ANCHORAGE — You'd think that more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists would know what, if any, long-term health dangers face the thousands of workers needed to clean up the Gulf of Mexico spill.
You'd be wrong.
"We don't know a damn thing," said Anchorage lawyer Michael Schneider, whose firm talked with dozens of Alaska cleanup workers following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in preparation for a class-action lawsuit that never came.
In New Orleans last week, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin delivered a similar, if more subtle, message to a gathering of health experts meeting to talk about how to protect people working on the massive BP oil spill still gushing in the Gulf of Mexico.
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"Current scientific literature is inconclusive with regard to the potential hazards resulting from the spill," Benjamin said. "Some scientists predict little or no toxic effect . . . while other scientists express serious concerns about the potential short-term and long-term impacts the exposure to oil and dispersants could have on the health of responders and our communities."
That lack of published, peer-reviewed study of the Exxon Valdez cleanup workers has made protecting the growing number workers in the Gulf of Mexico all the more difficult and has Alaska watchdogs warning that BP and government regulators are repeating mistakes that made people sick a generation ago.
"We don't have the good answers that we could have had from the Exxon Valdez to either know that there are problems or to reassure people that there were not," said Mark Catlin, an industrial hygienist who visited the cleanup in 1989 and says some Gulf workers aren't receiving enough training to protect themselves.
Critics have questioned whether the Obama administration has left too many decisions about the health and safety of the oil spill workers to BP's discretion as a growing number of workers complain about exposure to toxins.
Earlier this month, McClatchy reported that records released by the state of Louisiana showed that BP wasn't recording most worker complaints of illness after exposure to oil. While Louisiana records described least 74 oil spill workers complaining of becoming sick, BP's own official recordkeeping noted just two such incidents.
That followed a McClatchy story that said BP's plan to protect workers, which the Coast Guard approved on May 25, exposes them to higher levels of toxic chemicals than generally accepted practices permit.
The plan also doesn't require BP to give workers respirators, to evacuate them from danger zones, or to take other precautions until conditions are more dangerous. BP's plan also fails to address the health impacts of more than 1 million gallons of dispersants used so far in the cleanup.
Catlin was part of a Laborers International Union team of specialists who shortly after the Exxon Valdez spill warned Alaska's state labor department that spill workers could face lingering kidney and nervous system damage from prolonged exposure to oil and called for long-term monitoring of worker health.
No formal follow-up study apparently was ever undertaken, however, or if it was, its results weren't published, three of the original reports' authors said.
In the years since, Alaska workers have reported ailments ranging from flu-like symptoms to chemical sensitivity to neurological damage.
Exxon has consistently maintained that there's no evidence spill workers experienced any adverse health effects as a result of the cleanup. Spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said she isn't aware of any long-term study the company conducted on its own.
"The challenge is largely due to the fact that cleanup workers tended to be transient, temporary workers, which made any medical follow-up difficult," she said.
Sandee Elvsaas, who was director of the spill response operations for oil services firm Veco Corp. in the village of Seldovia, disputes that. She said she still has names of workers she sent out to spray beaches and boats fouled by the spill and who got sick.
"The people from the village are still here. . . . We're here. They just haven't come to ask," Elvsaas said.
"Terrible rashes and headaches and vomiting. They were nauseated . . . These were not the same people I sent out," she said.
A 1993 study conducted on the mental health fallout of the spill on workers and communities and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that people living in Alaska communities touched by the spill were more likely to suffer generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
No similar studies have been published on physical ailments, however. Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said NIOSH hasn't done any research on long-term health effects on Exxon Valdez workers.
Riki Ott, a biologist, activist and fisher from Cordova, Alaska, who's written two books about the Exxon Valdez spill, said the link between respiratory problems and exposure to oil and chemicals used in the cleanup was explored in an unpublished 2003 pilot study by a Yale graduate student.
The phone survey of 169 workers concluded that those who performed jobs with high oil exposure or exposure to oil mists, aerosol and fumes were more likely to report symptoms of chronic airway disease than workers with less exposure.
Based on the findings, Ott has told Congress that roughly 3,000 former cleanup workers are likely suffering spill-related illnesses.
Studies of other oil spills report similar trends.
A report on the 2002 oil tanker Prestige spill in Spain concluded "participation in cleanup work of oil spills may result in prolonged respiratory symptoms that last one to two years after exposure," according to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Exxon's own internal medical reports, which surfaced in court documents years after the spill, showed an unspecified number of spill workers made thousands of clinic visits for upper respiratory illnesses. Exxon later moved to seal the records. NIOSH had the legal authority to subpoena the records but never did so.
Eula Bingham, an assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health during the Carter administration, was part of the union team that visited the cleanup site in 1989. Bingham, now a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, said she worries about the apparent lack of a plan to protect volunteers from toxic exposure in the gulf.
"I think there are community people going out and scooping up the tar balls and doing some work that probably will never get paid by anybody," she said. "Who is looking after them? Who is measuring how much exposure they have to these toxic chemicals?"
One thing regulators learned from the Exxon Valdez spill and health concerns raised after the World Trade Center cleanup is the need for a database of workers whose health can be tracked in the future, said Blosser, the NIOSH spokesman.
"You need basically a way of knowing who was working at the site and information for contacting those workers over time," he said.
When BP chief executive Tony Hayward appeared before Congress on June 17, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., pressed Hayward on what he called BP's failure to provide a roster of spill workers despite multiple requests.
"The equivocation in your answer is something that is not reassuring to those workers . . . who potentially have been exposed to these chemicals in ways that can impact on their health," Markey said, according to a transcript.
Blosser said BP provided the worker information last week.
Basic worker health information could also play a role in future court cases against BP.
About 50 lawsuits were filed against Exxon over the Valdez spill, said Bergman, the company spokeswoman. She said she didn't know how many were settled out of court, though a separate case involving insurance companies revealed one worker was paid $2 million.
Schneider, the Anchorage lawyer, said his firm interviewed dozens of workers after the spill. Erin Brockovich — the environmental activist portrayed by Julia Roberts in a 2000 biopic — had gotten involved. There was talk of a class-action lawsuit.
"There wasn't a class of participants that stood up. Just folks who had been around the project and the process — many of whom had claims that they had became ill and stayed ill after working on the oil spill," Schneider said.
Most complained of respiratory problems, he said.
Ultimately, the lack of independent proof, including a proper study of workers' health that could show the employees got sick directly because of the spill, scuttled the lawsuit.
"If you're the oil industry, you may or may not have this data. Lord knows, you're not going to want to publish it," Schneider said.
(Hopkins reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)
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