May 28, 2010 Elizabeth Grossman 13Comment

By Elizabeth Grossman

“All the data shows no toxic air concentrations from the oil spill where work is being performed,” is what OSHA spokesperson Jason Surbey told me on Friday, May 21st.

But on the afternoon of May 26th, after crew members of three “vessels of opportunity” working in the Breton Sound area of the Gulf reported experiencing nausea, dizziness, headaches, and chest pains – and one was medevaced by air to West Jefferson Hospital in Marrero, Louisiana and two others taken to the same hospital by ambulance – the Unified Command recalled all vessels of opportunity working in that area. Medical personnel were then sent to evaluate other responders working on the water in Breton Sound.

“What’s been difficult from the human health point of view is that it’s been difficult to characterize the different constituents in the crude oil,” said NIEHS Worker Education Training Program director Chip Hughes during a May 25th Partnerships for Environmental Public Health update on the Gulf oil spill response. In other words, whether it’s gooey liquid oil, the emulsified oil known as mousse, weathered crude or tar balls, we don’t know exactly what people are being exposed to in terms of toxic volatile chemicals.

“There’s tremendous concern about the nature of the exposures going on right now given what we don’t know about the constituents of the crude,” said Hughes, whose presentation included a photograph of a response worker’s hands drenched in red-brown liquid oil.

“Our guys said they’d be bringing their own masks when they go back out to work,” said Beverly Wright during the PEPH presentation. Wright is director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, which has a jobs training institute whose members are now doing shoreline cleanup and containment.

When I asked OSHA about the source of the exposure monitoring data that led to the “no toxics air concentrations” assessment, Surbey told me that OSHA has been reviewing “exposure monitoring plans and the monitoring results for response workers conducted by BP and third-party industrial hygiene contractors.” The contractor providing this data, OSHA said, is a for-profit Arkansas-based toxicology and environmental consulting firm called the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH).

CTEH performed air quality monitoring for the Tennessee Valley Authority after the disastrous Kingston, Tennessee coal ash pond collapse last year – work that was criticized for shortcomings both by affected community members and in an EPA audit. On behalf of the Chinese drywall manufacturer Knauf CTEH performed some of the initial toxicity testing on the problematic Chinese drywall sold in the U.S., testing that found no health risks associated with the product. Relying on toxicity testing provided by a contractor hired by the responsible party raises obvious questions of conflict of interest. Such questions have already been raised during the Deepwater Horizon response with regard to the contractor providing water, sediment and marine animal tissue testing.

During the May 25th PEPH meeting it was reported that OSHA had begun vessel worker monitoring on the 24th and will be posting results on the agency website. But how will this data be used? Whose data will be used for decision making, OSHA’s or the BP contractor’s?

Meanwhile OSHA has not yet responded to the following questions:

  • Are any clean-up and containment workers or other responders wearing personal air sampling monitors or pumps? Have any agreed to wear dermal patches to monitor for dermal exposures? (Dermal exposures are a crude oil and petroleum product health hazard.)
  • When OSHA says “no toxic air concentrations,” what does that mean? How is toxic being defined? What exposure standards are being used? (OSHA, NIOSH, AGCIH, or something else?) Exposure sampling posted by BP for sampling through May 19th shows elevated levels of hydrocarbons. EPA’s air monitoring data through May 21st shows levels of benzene, naphthalene, and toluene above the OSHA reporting limit.
  • Current OSHA-outlined training requirements for Vessels of Opportunity responders say “Contract Supervisors of those who will have direct contact with petroleum for vessel operations” must have “40-hour HAZWOPER training.” Other crew who are “contractors conducting work cleaning up spill-contaminated shoreline and vessel operations” need only a 4-hour training now being handled by a company called PEC, a BP contractor. For practical purposes, how does the work of “Contract Supervisors of those who will have direct contact with petroleum” and “contractors conducting work cleaning up contaminated shoreline and vessel operations” differ when there is now heavy oil washing ashore?
  • Does the 4-hour training include training on respiratory hazards? OSHA’s safety sheet does not mention them although basic OSHA oil spill response hazard information does. OSHA said that the agency is conducting on-site observations and interviews of workers in response staging areas, including vessel crews for oversight and monitoring purposes.
  • Is OSHA verifying reports of workers being denied requests for respiratory protection?

Meanwhile on May 27th, the Unified Incident Command reported that the Centers for Disease Control would be conducting medical and health surveillance in Gulf Coast communities. During the PEPH meeting Beverly Wright and John Ward, Director of the Division of Environmental Toxicology and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, reported health concerns related to the stress Gulf communities are experiencing – both physical and mental.

And the oil keeps on coming. On May 27th, the “Flow Rate Group” led by USGS director Marcia McNutt, announced its estimate of oil flow: between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels but perhaps has much as 25,000 barrels per day, depending on method of estimation. BP’s estimate has been 5,000 barrels per day.

“This area was affected by hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, and there’s a despair that sets in. Those were natural disasters with a lack of preparedness. Now we have a manmade disaster with a lack of preparedness,” said Ward.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

13 thoughts on ““All the data shows no toxic air concentrations” – but response workers are stricken

  1. While the questions about air quality and toxic fumes are important, and without diminishing the need to investigate them, the first question I would ask on hearing that a few crew got sick is whether these crew were accustomed to work on a small boat at sea. See, of people who do that, there’s always a few who develop those symptoms.

    And strange smells makes one even more susceptible to mal-de-mer.

  2. I don’t know much about crude oil or toxicity.

    But I can tell you that the smell/fumes coming off of fuel oil and lubricating oils, when combined with the strong southern sun and physical labor, has been known to make strong men turn green, puke and wilt.

    People often underestimate how powerful the sun can be. Yankees suffer but there are a lot of southern natives that have never worked in the sun down here.

    I expect that if the people were borderline overheated because they are wearing coveralls over street clothes in temperatures over 90F. The smells could feel quite smothering. I imagine they might be dropping like flies after a few hours. If they had an existing heart condition they would weaken sooner and could, potentially, vapor lock.

    I suspect that the threat to their communities, the desire to fight back, and highly motivated to save their livelihoods has a lot of house cats getting out in the sun. Possibly for the first time in their lives. The fishermen pretty much know about the sun and are acclimated. The shop keepers, clerks and desk jockeys are not.

    I think that toxicity research and testing has to be undertaken. Levels monitored. Prudent steps taken. But I suspect that the majority of the health effects we are seeing have a simpler origin than chemical toxicity from exposure.

  3. Skimmed the exposure numbers – thanks so much for pointing out the trail.

    The situation is analogous to 911 – conventional sampling shows low exposure compared to established evaluation criteria for occupational exposure. Toluene and xylene are borderline for ATSDR MRL’s, but below, benzene is way above the 0.009 ppm acute recommendation. However, there would be little precedent for the symptoms reported to be caused by exposure at these levels. These mesurements don’t address the complex volatiles emitted by crude oil – reported smells tell you that.

    There was also little precedent for the severe effects observed following 911 at the exposure levels measured for PM. The effects are clear.

  4. Two comments:
    one, the testing company’s reputation seems less than stellar on these issues.
    two, much of this oil is an entirely new entity because it has been combined with water and dispersant at extremely low temperatures and high pressures, who knows what chemical reactions have occurred.

    Unfortunately it appears that identifying the components of the mix is not a priority.

  5. You can go to the EPA’s air monitoring web site (, fight through their really bad user interface, and find hydrogen sulfide concentration in air ranging from 0.1 to over 0.5 ppm. These are area samples, not personal monitoring, and EPA doesn’t give a lot of details, such as where the monitoring stations are located relative to the workers and what’s the averaging time of the sampling. However, you can see values that are routinely above EPA’s Reference Concentration (, and in many cases are a substantial fraction of the TLV of 1 ppm.

    We don’t know what this means for actual worker exposure – it may be more variable, and peak exposures to hydrogen sulfide are probably more important in terms of health risks than long-duration exposure. In addition, the occupational exposure limits such as TLVs aren’t safe/unsafe limits – IH practice would dictate pushing exposures to lower levels if feasible; however in this case, BP’s costs would go up, because reducing exposures would involve training, monitoring, respiratory protection and PPE, and administrative controls (e.g. rotating workers out of exposure zones more frequently).

    The data that we’re able to see is really poor, in terms of characterizing exposures and risks to the workers – but it still shows they are at risk and it’s not surprising that there are reports of illnesses. And, there’s no evidence that BP is addressing this adequately.

  6. I cannot believe that an OSHA spokesperson would say that there are “no toxic air concentrations” when OSHA has not began to take samples. I believe that this person is being misquoted. OSHA industrial hygienists will start being deployed to the Gulf region during the Memorial Day weekend.

  7. George:
    The OSHA comment I quoted about lack of toxic air concentrations was sent to me in an email so I have it in writing and it is quoted accurately. The same was said a few days later to another reporter who also quoted this statement. Whether the statement itself was accurate is another matter, but the OSHA spokesperson was quoted accurately.

  8. The rig sank April 22nd and you are telling me that nobody is monitoring the workers? If they are coming into contact with crude oil they should be 40 hour HAZWOPER trained. Where are they going to get all the trained workers?
    Looks like another FUBAR
    Put them in Level B protection until they know the air levels of the contaminants. Even if the levels are low below the PEL I would use at least a half face APR with organic vapor acid gas cartridges.
    They need the air sampling results two weeks ago. What is taking so long???

  9. “Tpxic Air Concentrations.” It would possibly be accurate to say that no measured exposures exceeded OSHA PEL’s. If it’s CDC, they should reference MRL’s, EPA RfC’s.

  10. Salutations to all,


    the amount of oil drifting to the shore, or the amount of Oil 25 feet under as shown today by Philippe Cousteau, Grand-son of Jacques Cousteau as filed here
    BP Oilpocalypse Creates Underwater Nightmare

    chemical dissolvant has risen fear of Brain Effects.

    the fact that BP is soo slow and amateur

    Would it be better for public Health to use a Tactical Nuclear Bomb to shuffle the well as it been done in Russia in the 60’s and 70’s ???

    I am asking this question remembering that the Assam Damn did provide water to GIzeh but cease to bring the nutrients for the Nile and the Delta and of course the fishes in East Mediterannea who needs these nutients.

    What I mean is that this solution I Hope, is not in itself a bigger problem to the one we deal with now.

    Thank You


  11. Thank you for your posts on such an important topic.

    I have a question. A few weeks ago, while responding to someone’s inquiry about safety in oil cleanup, I downloaded a ppt file (I think it was from the OSHA site, but I’m not certain) titled “NIEHS Oil Spill Oil Spill Cleanup Training Tool, May 2010 v3.

    A few days ago, someone ELSE asked me again, so I tried to look for that file, but found that it’s been replaced by v4, so I thought, good, they must have updated it with better information.

    When I compared the files, however, I discovered a few disturbing differences, especially that 3 pages on the health risks and occupational exposure limits of benzene have been deleted from v4.

    Another page that got deleted, was one on ‘Health Effects and Occupational Exposure Limits Fuel Oils’ which, among other things, states (emphasis added)

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Air Force Office of Safety and Health (AFOSH) have set a permissible exposure level (PEL) for petrolem distillates at 500 parts per million for general industry for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek. There is no PEL set for maritime.

    There were new additional pages on decontamination.

    The original v3 ppt file can no longer be downloaded online, but is presented as a slideshow here v4 is available here Alternately feel free to email me for those files.

    Anyway, my question is this. I can understand this is all a work in progress, and as such training guidance may need to be updated depending on what transpires, but I don’t understand the rationale for deleting the pages on benzene, seeing as this is probably one of the biggest hazards especially for those working offshore.

    Can anyone enlighten me on this point?

    I’d like to think there are evidence-based reasons for the various edits, and not because someone decides to place less emphasis in informing about the most toxic risks, and more on decontamination, or whatever….

  12. To Russell and Art, above — the workers on the “vessels of opportunity” who were affected were local fishermen who had been hired to help BP, since BP is making a sincere attempt to buy off local hostility by offering jobs, and these men can no longer fish there but they still need money. However, this means that they are both accustomed to being at sea, and accustomed to the local weather.

    @SusanC — I don’t know, but I will second that it is a good question!

  13. Lady’s…
    If you guy’s had been alive (& paying attention) for the last 40-50 yrs.(62 in my case), none of this would be a “mystery” at all.
    My Daddy, his Daddy was an original wildcatter, was raised in the “Oil Bidness” (unlike that Yankee pretender, Texan wannabe)called this sort of deal “API” (substituted, over the decades as “SOP”}.
    Standard Operating Procedure, for this stuff was, is & will be, OLDLDL (Obscure,Lie,Deny,Litigate,Delay,Lobby) or as I call it “Old Lady”. (Last L could be B for Bribe(same/same) … but it would mess w/ the acronym)
    As in: “convince/confuse the Old Lady’s” is 90% of the battle.
    Sounds like it’s working again…., at least a few of you old lady’s are at least trying to raise the ‘old wool cap’ up to at least ‘eyelash level’, but that is also normally the case, mostly never enough/soon enough, to do much good.
    But it is necessary… keep it up.. just do more of it.
    Good Luck,
    Nxxon Oil made it work so well that us taxpayers wound up paying for any & all leftover the Val-Disea-ze fines after almost 2 decades of OLDLD_, the last “L” worked just fine.
    (see that part of the bank-bail-out as the Shrub was leaving office…)
    PPS: Works just as well for politicians & corp. exec’s.

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