Doctors call for help protecting Gulf oil spill workers

McClatchy NewspapersJune 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A group of doctors who've tracked 9/11 rescue workers' illnesses urged the Obama administration to "prevent a repetition of costly mistakes" made after the terrorist attacks by protecting Gulf Coast oil spill workers from toxic exposure.

In a letter McClatchy obtained that was sent to health and safety officials earlier this month, 14 doctors said oil spill workers should get the maximum level of protection from exposure in an effort to avoid the problems that arose after the Sept. 11 attacks.

After 9/11, health experts accused the Bush administration of withholding information about the toxicity of the air at the World Trade Center site from emergency workers and of being too slow to prevent exposure.

Long-term studies have since found that many 9/11 rescue workers and firefighters have suffered increased respiratory illnesses and reduced lung capacity.

"Failure to recognize the errors made from the response to the WTC disaster and a further failure to benefit from their attendant lessons may well lead to needless risk to human health in the Gulf and will amplify the human and financial costs associated with such risks," the doctors wrote.

The group recommended that the program set up to track the health of the oil spill workers be sponsored by organizations other than BP. As it stands, the Obama administration is demanding that BP pay for the program.

The doctors wrote that the administration should "enforce applicable laws to the maximum extent possible, leaving as little as possible to the discretion of private industry."

Critics are questioning whether the administration has left too many decisions about the health and safety of the estimated 37,000 oil spill workers to the discretion of BP as a growing number of them complain about exposure to toxins.

At least 74 spill workers have complained that they felt ill after exposure to air pollutants from the crude oil, dispersants and other toxins. Most of the symptoms — ranging from throat irritation to nausea and headaches — cleared up quickly.

While experts agree that the level of exposure is lower than federal safety standards permit, they say that what little information has been released offers more questions than answers.

Meanwhile, BP isn't recording a majority of the exposures to air pollutants as part of its official tracking system of oil spill illnesses and injuries.

Adding to the concerns, workers are getting only the minimum hazardous-material training required, which is two to four hours. That's because the administration chose to apply training standards that date to soon after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Health and safety officials also have declined to push BP to provide respirators to many of the workers. They're worried about requiring respirators prematurely, in part because of the summer heat that many workers are exposed to. Respirators could trigger heat exhaustion or worsen its symptoms.

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