July 15, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 4Comment

Kyle Hopkins of McClatchy follows up on the question of how we learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster about long-term health effects experienced by cleanup workers. In short, we have no peer-reviewed studies on this important topic, even though occupational health experts called for long-term monitoring of workers. Hopkins writes:

Exxon has consistently maintained that there’s no evidence spill workers experienced any adverse health effects as a result of the cleanup. Spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said she isn’t aware of any long-term study the company conducted on its own.

“The challenge is largely due to the fact that cleanup workers tended to be transient, temporary workers, which made any medical follow-up difficult,” she said.

Sandee Elvsaas, who was director of the spill response operations for oil services firm Veco Corp. in the village of Seldovia, disputes that. She said she still has names of workers she sent out to spray beaches and boats fouled by the spill and who got sick.

“The people from the village are still here. . . . We’re here. They just haven’t come to ask,” Elvsaas said.

“Terrible rashes and headaches and vomiting. They were nauseated . . . These were not the same people I sent out,” she said.

NIOSH also hasn’t conducted long-term research on the health of Exxon Valdez cleanup workers – but they’ve evidently learned from the World Trade Center experience that it’s important to set up a registry of workers. After repeated requests, BP has now provided NIOSH with a worker roster.

Another reason that we lack good information about the effects of that oil spill and its cleanup is that the people with the worst symptoms were more likely to win legal settlements against Exxon – but the settlements required that the records be sealed.

Even if we don’t know much about long-term health impacts of the Exxon Valdez disaster, I hope we’ve at least learned how important it is to get the necessary information and study it.

In other news:

New York Times: After investigating the February explosion that killed six workers at the Middleton, CT Kleen Energy power plant, the Chemical Safety Board urged OSHA to issue regulations to prevent explosions and fires during pipe cleaning and purging operations. (See the CSB site for more details.)

CBS Evening News: Nearly 400 military personnel are part of a class-action lawsuit against contractor KBR, which operated some of the largest burn pits at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of soldiers stationed at bases with burn pits have reported respiratory problems – and, in some cases, cancer – that they say is linked to breathing toxic substances in burn pit smoke.

ESPN: After Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died in a traffic accident last year, researchers examined his brain and found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of degenerative brain damage caused by repeated head trauma.

Environmental Health Perspectives: Several dozen countries have banned asbestos, but demand is rising in industrializing countries. Collegium Ramazzini renews its call for a global ban.

4 thoughts on “Occupational Health News Roundup

  1. Thanks for the post. The description of these cleanup workers by the Exxon as transist is false. Most of the more than 13,000 cleanup workers in 1989 and 1990 were Alaska residents. Almost half were members of Alaska unions, primarily the Alaska Laborers Union and also the Operating Engineers and Teamsters. Many of these workers could be located today using local union record, as has been done often in occupational health research. Exxon did not want any followup studies done. I am glad to see NIOSH at least gathering information so that the current Gulf cleanup workers, who are almost entirely nonunion, might be followed.

  2. I was glad the reporter didn’t just stick in the statement from Exxon and leave it at that, but found someone knowledgeable to respond. In general, McClatchy’s been doing a great job covering the BP disaster.

  3. As a disaster researcher with nearly three decades of experience I have been following the BP spill closely. Over the years I have worked on many major oil spills including the Exxon spill. I spent nearly two years in the field conducting research at the time of the Exxon spill and have returned many years since then. One of my primary areas of concern has been public health issues like the health controversies surrounding the clean-up. In Alaska I interviewed many clean-up workers as well as Sandy Elvasaas. In November I have a book coming out, Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe (Left Coast Press), which explores this issue in depth including not only the Exxon-Valdez and Deepwater spills, but 911, asbestos in Libby Montana, the Shetlands Islands Oil Spill and the TVA ash spill in Eastern TN, etc all clearly demonstrating a pattern of neglect, cover-up and a failure to conduct long-term health studies. Gregory Button, Director of the Center for Disasters, Displacement and Human Rights, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (formerly a faculty member in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

  4. There was a review of human health studies related to oil spills published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology a few months ago that I recently blogged about (sorry for the shameless self-promotion). There have been some studies showing evidence of genetic damage in spill responders, indicating at least some potential for carcinogenic effects, as well as endocrine effects, but it doesn’t look like any long-term follow-up was done. There were also shorter-term effects (e.g. respiratory effects). To me it almost seems criminal if you have biomarkers of potential long-term adverse health effects in workers and don’t follow up on the work.

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