Studies show that Coast Guard responders were harmed by dispersants during oil spill

Oil spill

HMN-Studies are suggesting that dispersants used during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, may have harmed responders.  Nearly 2000 Coast Guard responders experienced side effects believed to be caused by the chemicals. (NOLA)

For thousands of Coast Guard members who responded to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the dangers were clear — an oil platform in flames and then a hole in the seafloor spewing millions of gallons of oil. But what made many Coast Guard members truly afraid was what came after.

As the agency worked to contain the spill, airplanes swooped in low, spraying a mysterious concoction of chemicals.

These oil dispersants, BP hoped, would quickly cleanup its monumental mess.
“I can tell you Coast Guard members were terrified of the concept of dispersants,” said Rear Admiral Erica Schwartz, the Coast Guard’s director of health and safety.

New studies indicate their fears were well-founded.

The nearly 2,000 Coast Guard members who reported exposure to oil dispersants suffered a range of illnesses — lung irritation, skin rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — at higher rates than members who were not exposed to the chemicals or were exposed to oil alone, according to research by the Uniformed Services University, a Maryland health sciences and medical school run by the federal government.

“With increased levels of exposure there was a higher prevalence of reporting cough and shortness of breath, and more reporting of wheeze than non-exposed people,” said Jennifer Rusiecki, a USU researcher involved in two recent studies on the health of Coast Guard personnel who responded to the disaster.

The people exposed to the dispersants were four times more likely to report shortness of breath and three times more likely to report skin rashes than their non-exposed counterparts, researchers found. They were also two times more likely to say they suffered bouts of coughing and digestive problems, including diarrhea and vomiting, Rusiecki said.

Exposure to oil has its own toxic effects, but most Coast Guard members took precautions to avoid contact. Few understood to that same degree that dispersants also could be harmful.

A BP spokesman was contacted last week to seek comment on the USU research, but the company did not send a statement. In the past, BP has said the use of dispersants was approved by federal environmental agencies and the Coast Guard.

Spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon spill is considered one of the world’s largest human-made disasters. BP used two types of dispersant, Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527, both manufactured by Nalco Environmental Solutions, to break up the oil.

Nearly 1 million gallons were dropped by air, and another 770,000 gallons were injected into the damaged wellhead about a mile under the water’s surface.

It was the first time dispersants had been used on a large scale and in proximity to people. A USU study released in January noted that dispersants remain in common use after oil spills.

“However, little is known about human health effects related to exposure,” the study says.

The Coast Guard is keenly interested in the research.

“We view it as very critical for our responders,” Schwartz said. “Nearly 20 percent of our workforce responded to the disaster.”

The Coast Guard led the multi-agency response to the disaster and coordinated cleanup, deploying about 8,700 personnel from bases across the country.

Schwartz said personnel in good health reported “several medical conditions” after exposure to dispersants. They wanted to know if there was a connection.

“I didn’t have an answer,” she said.

“That’s why it’s critical to have studies like Jen’s (Rusiecki).”

Crude oil exposure has been a major focus of health studies, but the effects of dispersants are only beginning to be understood, despite widespread reports of illness from coastal residents, fishermen and disaster responders exposed to dispersants during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The combination of oil and dispersants on human health is also poorly understood.

The USU’s findings come a few months after The National Institutes of Health published a study showing other cleanup workers exposed to dispersants suffered a range of similar symptoms.

The study’s authors were the most prominent group of scientists to examine the human health effects of dispersants.

NIH researchers interviewed more than 31,000 people involved in the disaster response and cleanup, many of whom were contracted or temporary workers.

Participants who indicated symptoms were visited at home, where they underwent medical assessments and provided biological samples for testing.
BP declined to comment on the NIH research when the results were released.

The NIH study has received criticism from the oil industry for having incomplete information on a range of issues, including work locations of responders, dispersant exposure rates and durations, and whether workers may have been ill before exposure to dispersants.

“You would think it’s death and destruction every time it’s used,” said Thomas Coolbaugh, an oil spill response advisor for Exxon Mobil, referring to dispersants.

NIH researcher Dale Sandler admitted the study has flaws, but said there’s a growing body of evidence that dispersants are harmful. She and Rusiecki point to studies showing dispersants cause harm to crabs, fish, rats, whales and deep-sea coral.
Research released early this year indicates dispersants harm oil-eating bacteria, diminishing nature’s own ability to cleanup after a spill.

“We don’t claim a perfect truth but the stories are becoming more cohesive,” Sandler said.

The USU’s Coast Guard study doesn’t have many of the NIH’s shortcomings. Rusiecki was able to tap into a vast body of detailed records on Coast Guard personnel, including medical records, daily activity logs, deployment orders and locations, whether they smoked, and the types of safety gear they used.

“Because the Coast Guard is a branch of the military, we have a lot of valuable information on these people,” Rusiecki said.
She and other researchers hope to improve their understanding of how levels of dispersant exposure may affect health, and whether exposure causes any long-term or permanent harm.

“Of all the studies about the toxic effects of dispersants, there really haven’t been any on humans,” Rusiecki said. “We’re trying to address that.”

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