WASHINGTON — As BP moves to seal the Deepwater Horizon well permanently, more than 31,000 cleanup workers continue to rely on incomplete and at times misleading information about toxic exposure to the spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Public health officials say they face a daunting challenge: how to inform workers about the possible dangers when studies on the toxic effects of such a large spill have never been done.
Research has provided enough clues about some of the chemicals, however, that independent scientists and worker health advocates say that BP and the Obama administration should be more aggressive in warning workers about the possible long-term health effects of toxins, especially given complaints of worker illnesses that surfaced after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
"It's sort of a legalistic framework that the government has adopted in saying there are not a lot of studies so we don't know a lot," said Dr. Michael Harbut, who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine and has treated oil industry workers.
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"It's true that there have not been extensive studies about crude oil dumping into the Gulf in the millions of barrels quantity and being mixed with dispersant," he said, "but there are thousands of studies about what happens when people and animals come into contact with these chemicals, and those studies demonstrate that they are not benign."
Two months into the response, however, administration officials decided that respirators weren't needed for cleanup workers stationed nearby and on shore, because air monitoring didn't detect levels of contaminants that were higher than federal standards.
The government did recommend that BP provide respirators to workers in the areas that were closest to the freshly spilled oil and to the vapors from burning it, but didn't make it a requirement.
BP asserts that the air-monitoring data demonstrate that workers have little to worry about.
"The monitoring data shows that few people, if any, are exposed to levels of oil or dispersants that have even the potential to cause any significant adverse health effects," the company said in a written response to McClatchy's questions.
The reality is much more complicated, however, experts say.
Discerning the danger is difficult because the chemical soup that's spreading throughout the Gulf is a mix of dozens of toxic materials that are hard to measure, including benzene — a carcinogen — and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which health officials have determined "may reasonably be expected to be carcinogens."
Further, experts disagree on how toxic the oil is once it begins to evaporate.
"In a normal industrial environment, you would measure the air quality and get a baseline reading and know what the risks are," said Nicholas Cheremisinoff, a chemical engineer and oil industry consultant. "But this is not the situation in the Gulf. You've got very dynamic conditions out there."
The Labor Department said there was an "incomplete understanding about the human health toxicity" of the oil and dispersants. While noting that the aged and evaporated oil is "unlikely to pose an inhalation risk," the government said that studies of tanker oil-spill responses had reported "adverse health effects."
The records that are supposed to be the key sources for workers on the toxic chemicals shed little light on such questions.
For instance, the documents, written by BP, say that the crude from its runaway well contains some toxins — such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — but they don't list toluene and xylene as other oil and gas companies do.
Although BP acknowledges in the records that animal studies have shown that crudes "possess carcinogenic activity to some degree," it adds that only workers who practice "poor personal hygiene" and who are exposed repeatedly over many years "may potentially be at risk of developing skin cancer."
The company adds that crude oil "has not been identified as a carcinogen" by government agencies.
Adam Finkel, a former regulatory and enforcement official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said that the documents, known as material safety data sheets, were confusing and left out too much important information to be of any use to workers.
"The MSDS is not just a piece of paper. It is the rule," Finkel said. "The employee is supposed to be able to learn about the harm. If you're going to have a system that relies on these complicated documents, then at the very least they ought to be true and consistent."
BP said the documents were sufficient for informing workers about the dangers and "are not intended as information packets for the general public."
Jordan Barab, the Labor Department's deputy assistant secretary for OSHA, said his agency didn't scrutinize the BP documents closely because his inspectors didn't rely on them to determine what to monitor in the Gulf. He said the agency was working on changing regulations that he said now allowed companies to file "everything from two pages that have nothing on them to 26-page MSDSs that nobody can decipher."
Some experts think that if the Gulf workers had been better informed about the chemicals they could be exposed to, they would have demanded more protection.
"As a realistic matter, if you're exposed to a low level of these chemicals for a short time you probably won't get sick," said Harbut, whom the military has contacted for his opinion on the spill. "But how many hours or days is a short time, and how much of it is a low level?"
"If my kid were out there, I would want him to wear a respirator, not have direct contact with the oil and to be exercising as many safety precautions as a refinery worker," he said.
After collecting more than 9,000 samples in areas where workers were, BP specified three situations in which they might have been at risk of exposure to higher levels of chemicals:
- People working on the water surface above the well site. "There have been a few occasions where volatile organic chemical levels were high enough to require these workers to use respirators for short periods," the company said.
There have been a "very small number" of air samples in excess of federal standards, which BP attributes to "isolated circumstances" such as leaking hydraulic fluid.
However, worker health and safety advocates question whether the air monitoring by BP and the government is reliable and extensive enough to determine the health effects.
Eileen Senn, a former state and federal health and safety official, called the air sampling efforts by BP and the government "mission impossible" because thousands of workers are spread over a large area.
"Life and death decisions like whether or not to provide workers with respirators are being made on air sampling," she said. "But unless you've got an army, I don't know how you can even pretend to do representative air sampling."
On average, OSHA has nine inspectors a day in the Gulf region, and it hasn't tracked the workers near the source of the oil, partly because it doesn't have jurisdiction that far offshore.
However, government officials are adamant that the toxin levels were low enough to support the decision not to require or recommend wide-scale respirator use or more aggressive warnings.
Barab, the Labor Department deputy assistant secretary, said that requiring respirators would complicate the cleanup unnecessarily.
"It would be a disaster if you required every worker to wear a respirator all the time because they might be exposed to some small level of a toxic chemical," Barab said. "You'd have a major rebellion on your hands, because no one would want to wear them."
Making matters worse, he said, BP then would have to screen thousands of workers, many of whom would fail those medical examinations for reasons unrelated to the oil and therefore not be allowed to work.
"That's the price you pay if there are major contaminants you want to protect workers against," Barab added. "But if it's the case that you're not above any significant levels, there's really no reason to put anybody through that."
OSHA is relying on other agencies' thresholds for toxins because, it acknowledges, its own are inadequate and decades out of date.
The American Petroleum Institute has noted in its literature as far back as 1948 that benzene could be dangerous at any level. "It is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero," the institute concluded.
Barab acknowledged that there's a legitimate debate over permitted levels of toxins, saying that OSHA is looking at whether to update its levels for chemicals such as benzene.
However, he added that the level of benzene that oil-spill workers have been exposed to is almost undetectable, and potentially lower than what gas station attendants face.
"We live in a society that accepts some exposure to toxic chemicals. You're exposed to benzene every time you fill up a car tank," he said. "You can make a very good argument that all the workers on the Gulf, for better or for worse, are actually receiving better protections than most workers in this society."
Despite the uncertainties, the federal government has taken precautions for its own employees.
Concerned about the possibility that pilots might have to eject into the oil in an emergency, U.S. military officials decided to reroute training flights in the Gulf region to avoid oil-tainted areas.
Public health agencies have been just as cautious, telling their researchers who test the air quality offshore to wear respirators.
Doctors and workers' health advocates fear that workers will learn about the health effects only years from now, when they start getting sick.
Meanwhile, in preparation for a long-term study of health effects from the Gulf spill, the Labor Department has started gathering data from thousands of workers.
"It's almost ghoulish. People are lining up for the money to research these workers who are being used as guinea pigs," said Senn, the former state and federal health and safety official. "Not that it shouldn't be done. But you don't start to research people while you can still protect them."
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