By Elizabeth Grossman
Expressions of concern for oil spill response workers’ health and safety grew this past week as reports arrived by way of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network that BP was denying workers’ requests for respirators. On June 4th, the Wall Street Journal reported that Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and James Oberstar (D-Minn) had written to the EPA and Department of Labor demanding that all response workers be provided with “proper protective equipment, including respirators.”
Anna Hrybyk, program manager of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, also reports that in three days 17 workers were treated at the West Jefferson Center Medical tent in Grand Isle for headaches, respiratory problems, abrasions, infections, and insect bites. None had been wearing gloves or respirators.
Six weeks into this disaster we still don’t know precisely what workers out on the water are being exposed to – particularly those working where controlled burns of surface oil are being conducted and chemical dispersants being applied. Between June 6th and April 28th, 125 controlled burns of surface oil have been conducted and more than 1.08 million gallons of chemical dispersant applied, nearly 800,000 of that on the surface.
OSHA, EPA, and NOAA have all released some air quality information, but it doesn’t give a complete picture of airborne exposures for cleanup workers who are out on the water.
OSHA releases air monitoring data from three work sites
Yesterday evening, OSHA posted the results of its air monitoring from three work sites. This is the first such data from oil spill worker breathing zones conducted by a federal agency to be made publicly available.
The data are from two beach cleanup sites and one on-vessel site, and OSHA says that its interpretation of the results obtained for the operations sampled “does not indicate workers” at any of these sites “are being exposed to hazardous levels of substances or agents.”
This OSHA data was taken on Elmer’s Island and Grand Isle State Park on May 25 and 27, and from on board the vessel Kimi Alayna on May 24. OSHA does not say where the vessel was when samples were taken, so it’s impossible to know from the data if the vessel was in the vicinity of controlled burns or where dispersants are being applied.
Substances sampled were benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, oxygen, petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and combustible gases.
No samples at any site showed hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, or combustible gases. VOCs were found only in samples where boat decks had been cleaned with a citrus-based cleaning product. Beach bagging samples at Grand Isle State Park showed levels of benzene at less than 0.2 parts per million (ppm) and petroleum hydrocarbons at less than 100 ppm. Absorbent boom work areas tested on Elmer’s Island showed benzene at less than 0.2 ppm and petroleum hydrocarbons at less than 20 ppm.
The Kimi Alayna data set includes no benzene or petroleum hydrocarbon samples. None of the samples include particulate matter.
EPA and NOAA information leaves many questions
Meanwhile, neither EPA nor NOAA has answered my question asking if air monitoring and contaminant sampling is being done off shore to assess air quality response workers are encountering. Nor do we yet have a publicly available chemical analysis of the various forms of oil being encountered.
Of its on-shore air monitoring to date, EPA says via its BP spill response page: “EPA’s air monitoring conducted through June 5, 2010, has found that air quality levels for ozone and particulates are normal on the Gulf coastline for this time of year.” But it goes on to say, “EPA has observed odor-causing pollutants associated with petroleum products along the coastline at low levels. Some of these chemicals may cause short-lived effects like headache, eye, nose and throat irritation, or nausea. People may be able to smell some of these chemicals at levels well below those that would cause short-term health problems.”
On-shore monitoring tests for VOCs, particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, semi-volatile organic compounds and “air toxics.” VOCs include benzene, ethyl benzene, napthalane, toluene, and xylenes.
Additional EPA air monitoring data comes from flights conducted over the spill area through EPA’s ASPECT program. These ASPECT flights were conducted at an altitude of 2800 feet. Chemicals tested for include hydrogen sulfide but not benzene, toluene, xylenes, naphthalene, ethyl benzene or particulate matter. Thus far these flights have detected only traces of methanol.
Curious about the ASPECT flight air monitoring data, I spoke to Staci Simonich, associate professor of chemistry at Oregon State University whose research focuses on the atmospheric transport of VOCs. Samples taken at 2800 feet, she explained, would be useful for predicting what contaminants might be transported over distances but not for capturing a picture of the near-surface air quality to which people are being exposed.
To understand potential health impacts of contaminants resulting from the surface oil burning, a chemical analysis of particulate matter is needed, said Simonich. Volatile and semivolatile compounds – many of which are carcinogenic – can become attached to and travel with particulates. If the particulates carrying VOCs are very small – such as the PM 2.5 EPA has recently begun to regulate – they can enter lung tissue, creating the potential for serious adverse health effects.
A NOAA report on the “Health and Safety Aspects of In-situ Burning of Oil” says, “Response personnel working close to the burn may be exposed to levels of gases and particulates that would require them to use personal protective equipment.” It also explains that “Particulates, mostly soot, comprise ten to fifteen percent of the smoke plume. Small amounts of toxic gases are emitted as well….In addition, small amounts of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are emitted from the fire, mostly as residues attached to the particulates.”
The report cites research that suggests that large particulate (PM 10) and VOC concentrations beneath a burn plume are relatively low and thus present relatively low health risks to response personnel or downwind. However, the report does not discuss small particulates (PM 2.5) that we now know to be problematic. Nor does it consider long-term health effects of which the World Trade Center 9/11 experience has made us all too well aware.
The situation described by John Sullivan, co-director Public Forum and Toxic Assistance at the NIEHS Center in Environmental Toxicology of University of Texas Medical Branch, last week in Dulac, Lafitte, and Grand Isle, Louisiana, does not mirror the generally clean bill of health suggested by the latest EPA and OSHA – or BP – data. “There are approximately 15 workers out of commission,” wrote Sullivan, “mostly from direct respiratory /dermal exposure to the crude slick (and possibly Corexit 9500 surfactant), or oil laden debris.”
And behind the scenes, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels has written to BP criticizing BP for “not being forthcoming with basic, but critical safety and health information on injuries and exposures.”
Meanwhile OSHA has not yet responded to my questions about response worker exposures asked over ten days ago. On June 4, I was told answers were still being vetted. The data posted on the 6th answers some questions but raises still more.
UPDATE, 6/8: Since this post was published on June 7th, both OSHA and BP have updated their information. The OSHA spill site now links to this BP page, and the OSHA page with the monitoring data no longer states that the results do not indicate workers “are being exposed to hazardous levels of substances or agents.”
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.