Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Deepwater Horizon: Seven years after explosion and oil spill, study finds cleanup workers got sicker

On the seventh anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the health impacts that the spewing oil had on the people who came into contact with it are still raising questions about how the cleanup was handled.

The latest studies by the National Institutes of Health found that the thousands of workers who came into contact with the oil that coated the coastlines of four states in 2010 were more susceptible to health woes during the cleanup, according to Dale Sandler, chief of the NIH's epidemiology branch.

"People who had the greatest exposure were more likely than other workers to report itchy eyes, burning throats, coughing, wheezing and skin irritations," she said.

Often those symptoms were initially blamed on heat exhaustion, she said. But the NIH found that the workers in contact with the oil experienced those symptoms two to three times more than other workers who were not in contact with the oil.

"We were seeing symptoms that were not part of the definition of heat stress," she said.

At this point, the NIH experts cannot say for sure that those symptoms were the result of chemical exposure, but that's the theory they're exploring.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster began with a deadly explosion on April 20, 2010, and grew worse and worse from there. The oil rig 150 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded, killing 11 people and injuring 17. The rig sank, and two days later oil began gushing from 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico's surface.

Oil washed up on the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and reached Florida in June. Thousands of shiny, reddish-brown globs, some as big as Frisbees, tainted the sugar-white beaches across eight counties, while tar mats the size of throw rugs floated just offshore.

BP wasn't able to shut off the flow until July, which meant an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had spewed out and spread through the gulf. Some of it settled on the ocean floor, and there it still lies according to studies by University of South Florida scientists.

To clean up the oil that tainted the beaches and mangrove shores, BP hired 55,000 people, many of whom had been previously unemployed and had no prior experience with oil spills.

They would work in the sun for 10 minutes, then sit in the shade for 50, or put in 14 hours at night when no one saw them. They wore hard hats and steel-toed boots as they trudged along the beach scooping up tar balls.

In the past 50 years, in 40 known oil spills around the world, only eight have been studied for human health impacts. Those studies found that cleanup workers exposed to crude oil often suffer acute short-term effects — stinging eyes, rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughs and other respiratory symptoms. But there have been no studies of the long-term health effects.

So in February 2011, the NIH announced it would spend a decade studying the health impact on the cleanup workers — the largest such study in the agency's history.

About 33,000 of the people who had played some role in the cleanup agreed to participate. Two years ago, Sandler reported that the earliest results from the study had found that the incidence of continued wheezing and coughing among the former cleanup workers was 20 to 30 percent higher than among the general public. The study will continue through 2021.

BP officials have repeatedly said that the protection of workers and public health were among their top priorities during the cleanup.

Under terms of a government settlement with BP over damage done by the spill, Florida is due to get $3.25 billion paid out over 18 years to "benefit areas of the state most devastated by the spill."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Deepwater Horizon: Seven years after explosion and oil spill, study finds cleanup workers got sicker 04/20/17 [Last modified: Saturday, April 22, 2017 9:31pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Hernando commissioners question sheriff's accounting of federal inmate dollars

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — As Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis and his staff presented his proposed 2017-18 budget earlier this month, county Commissioner Steve Champion threw out an unexpected question.

    Sheriff Al Nienhuis and the county fought over his department’s budget last year.
  2. Unused county property in Pasco could soon sprout community gardens

    Local Government

    NEW PORT RICHEY — Unused property in Pasco County may soon sprout community gardens that beautify neighborhoods and promote healthier lifestyles among residents, thanks to an ordinance passed unanimously Tuesday by the County Commission.

    A new Pasco ordinance allows the public to build community gardens and farms on county-owned property and also provides design, operations and maintenance standards for them.
  3. Treasure Island city manager search to start from scratch

    Local Government

    TREASURE ISLAND — City commissioners, disappointed with the number and quality of applicants for city manager, decided Tuesday to start over and hire an executive search firm.

    Treasure Island Commissioner Ken Keys thought adding former Madeira Beach city manager Shane Crawford to the pool would "bring a little too much drama.''
  4. Family escapes fire that destroys New Tampa home

    Fire

    A family is safe after an overnight fire destroyed a single-story home in New Tampa on Thursday, according to Tampa Fire Rescue.

    An overnight house fire destroyed a home at 10265 Estuary Dr in New Tampa on Thursday. The family's smoke detectors helped everyone get out of the house safely, fire officials said. [Tampa Fire Rescue]
  5. Forecast: Hot, humid conditions across Tampa Bay with less rain in wake of Tropical Storm Cindy

    Weather

    Drier air will push into the Tampa Bay area in the wake of Tropical Storm Cindy, providing a little relief from the rain — but not the heat and humidity.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]