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Uncertainty Over Health Effects of Oil Cleanup Worry Some Along Gulf

June 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the oil cleanup along the Gulf Coast continues, Betty Ann Bowser reports on the health worries related to the ongoing oil disaster that are arising for some coastal residents and cleanup workers.

GWEN IFILL: Next: What’s behind the growing concerns along the Gulf Coast about health problems connected to the oil spill?

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser filed this story from Louisiana.

The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like most of the commercial fishermen here at the southern tip of Louisiana, Acy Cooper has had to go to work for BP on cleanup operations. The third-generation shrimper says it’s the only way to feed his family now that the oil spill has shut down most of the fishing grounds in the Gulf.

ACY COOPER, vice president, Louisiana Shrimper Association: If we don’t have no way to make any money, what are we going to do to pay our bills? Tomorrow, we might have no money to pay our bills. We have kids. People have small kids and families.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Cooper and some of his fellow shrimpers say the work is making them sick.

ACY COOPER: Nine of them came in already sickness, and a couple of them confirmed cases of chemical poison, have nose, runny nose, sore throat, nausea, shortness of breath, things in that nature.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How serious are these problems?

ACY COOPER: It’s very serious. We fought tooth and nail to get jobs, but we didn’t get jobs to kill anybody.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Forty-nine-year-old Cooper, who is vice president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, is one of the few cleanup workers who would talk on camera about the health issues involved. Most said they were afraid, if they spoke to us, they would be fired by BP.

ACY COOPER: We have some vessels out there four miles from the site, the burn team that’s with us in our organization. And yet — and the sickness come from out there, but yet they will still go, no matter what, because we’re between a rock and a hard place.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: No one really knows how many people are getting sick. But here in Louisiana, 143 cases blamed on exposure to oil have been reported to the state health department — 108 of those have involved cleanup workers, the rest members of the public.

Some of the people have been brought here to the West Jefferson Medical Center near New Orleans, where doctors report many of the complaints have involved heat- and respiratory-related issues.

JESSICA DANOS, concerned about husband: How you doing? Good.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jessica Danos has been concerned about what the cleanup work is doing to her husband T. John’s health.

JESSICA DANOS: You know, because we do worry about that they’re so close and they’re breathing it in all day long.

MAN: Some days, it might smell a little bad, but nobody got sick.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What the couple is really worried about is their 6-year-old daughter, Josie.

JESSICA DANOS: They say, you know, in years to come, our children can be affected health-wise, and that’s really scary.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And, Jessica says, she’s frustrated by the lack of information from local officials and elsewhere.

JESSICA DANOS: And that’s also scary, too, because it’s like you kind of feel like they’re hiding, something, you know. If there’s nothing to hide, just come out and say this is — everything is OK.

DR. IRWIN REDLENER, Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness: There’s nothing like uncertainty to make people anxious, whether you’re 9 years old or 90 years old.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, earlier this week, she and about 50 other fishing families went to a middle school near Venice to talk to three doctors from the Children’s Health Fund in New York City who were there to listen to their concerns.

WOMAN: And there’s literally a haze as far as you can see all the way to the ground. When you come out, the smell of petroleum hits you in the face.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Irwin Redlener is president of the group and also heads Colombia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He says a lack of information only exaggerates people’s worries about their health.

DR. IRWIN REDLENER: There are people that live in Lower Plaquemines Parish that who have a very difficult time accessing health services. There’s physical distances, no public transportation. There are people that are not insured, are not well-insured, yet there are costs to getting health care, which a lot of people can’t afford. So, there’s an ongoing series of challenges.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: People here have been frightened by stories they have heard in the media about the possibilities of dealing with cancer and other illnesses in the years to come.

WOMAN: Our lives are down here. Our kids are down here. My biggest fear is, 10 years from now, is my child going to be in a wheelchair, mentally able to sit and speak and hold a conversation because of this?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Currently, there are few long-term studies that examine oil spill impact on human health.

Kindra Arnesen’s fisherman husband was sick for six weeks with respiratory problems.

KINDRA ARNESEN, wife of fisherman: They’re finally starting to subside. My daughter has broke out in four rashes — four rashes. She has no skin problems whatsoever before this. Now she’s clear. I have had her locked up in the house for the past two weeks.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The health interests of people in the Gulf was on the minds of several hundred doctors and scientists gathered in New Orleans this week. The meeting, coordinated by the independent Institute of Medicine, was aimed at assessing the human health effects of the spill.

There was widespread agreement that the problem is not what science knows about the problem, but what it doesn’t.

Dr. Nicole Lurie is the Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

DR. NICOLE LURIE, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Department of Health and Human Services: The experience that we have had with dealing with so many other disasters prepares us to some extent, but not maybe as well as we would like for what to expect in either the short- or long-term health consequences.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Bernard Goldstein from the University of Pittsburgh says he’s most concerned about those involved in the cleanup operations.

DR. BERNARD GOLDSTEIN, University of Pittsburgh: The kind of organs we worry about are the respiratory tract, people inhaling these irritants. Their mucous membranes get affected in their nose, their eyes, as well as the upper respiratory tract, so they will develop a cough.

We worry about — some people have skin reactions when you put certain types of petroleum hydrocarbons on their skin. So, again, skin contact should be avoided.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Louisiana State University’s Edward Overton is also worried about cleanup workers. But he says the dangerous chemicals in the spill dissipate before they reach shore, and the general population, including people in Plaquemines Parish, have little to be concerned about.

EDWARD OVERTON, Louisiana State University: Now, it can give you a raspy throat and make you feel light-headed, and some people are more susceptible to that exposure than others.

But it’s not an acutely toxic chemical. Gasoline is much more dangerous than this oil, much more dangerous. It’s explosive. It contains human carcinogen benzene, and we use gasoline every day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shrimper Acy Cooper and many others we spoke to don’t buy that.

ACY COOPER: Can’t sit here and smell this stuff. Ain’t no telling what’s happen to you after four or five years and we don’t know how long — it may be a long time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And they’re worried what the future holds.

ACY COOPER: I have my sons out there working. I have my dad out there working. I’m working, my son-in-law. I have grandkids. What happens if they get sick five, 10 years down the line, and pass away? I have a bunch of kids running around here without no daddy? Come on. We have all got to think about this. And if you don’t think about it, something is wrong with you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: To track potentially serious and long-term effects, such as the development of cancer or other illnesses, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has launched the most robust monitoring system of oil spill workers to date. As of last week, more than 14,000 workers had volunteered to be part of a long-term tracking system.