Federal study: Dispersant likely caused health problems for BP spill cleanup workers

Federal study: Dispersant likely caused health problems for BP spill cleanup workers
Updated: Sep. 22, 2017 at 9:45 PM CDT
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(WVUE) - Seven years after the BP Oil Spill poured more than 4.9 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, researchers are finding out the impact that the more than a million gallons of chemical dispersant had on those involved in the cleanup.

Researchers suggest workers exposed to the chemicals are more likely to have acute health problems even years after the oil spill.

"That's about 2,300 people who had jobs that put them into contact with the dispersant," the National Institute of Environmental Health Science's Dr. Dale Sandler said. "The two dispersants that were used were selected based on some evidence that suggested that they were among the least toxic and the safest for the environment, but there's no way to know until you study the people."

A few months after the spill, the NIEHS began testing the effects that the two Corexit dispersants used have on people. The group studied 29,000 people hired to help with the cleanup.

The research was needed because no such study on humans had ever been done before.

This initial study found people exposed to Corexit EC9500A and Corexit EC9527A were 30 to 60 percent more likely to report having issues, according to Dr. Sandler.

"A range of health symptoms like cough and wheeze, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and skin irritation and rashes, they were significantly more likely to report those than people who were not handling the dispersants," Dr. Sandler said.  "It's very important to do these kinds of studies rather to just dismiss concerns based on extrapolating from what we know happens in an animal. "

"The quantity of this dispersant that was used in response to the BP spill was larger than anything that had ever occurred before and so they were out there spraying it on the oil slick at the same time all these workers were working to clean up the oil spill," Louisiana Environmental Action Network's Wilma Subra said.

Corexit is still legal to use as a dispersant in the United States.

But Subra said what has been revealed gives validation to environmentalists' warning about the chemical's health dangers.

"As a result of those health impacts, the other destruction of the organs in the body is what we're going to see long term," Subra said.

Dr. Sandler said it is too early to tell if exposure to the Corexit dispersant are linked to more chronic problems and more research is needed.

"We asked about having a first heart attack. We asked about cancer. You know all the usual diseases that your doctor would ask about a history of. We just haven't gotten there yet. We have a massive amount of data that we've collected and our focus to date is what people were experiencing at the time they were enrolled in the study but now we're turning our attention to what's going to happen to people over the long term," Dr. Sandler said.

The studies to determine possible links to more chronic problems are expected to be released over the next few years, but a study on lung capacity and Corexit exposure is expected to come out in the next several months.

Tests that were conducted on lab animals showed exposure to these chemicals raised toxicity levels, according to Dr. Sandler. But there has never been an intensive health study of Corexit's affects on animals either.

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