BP Oil Spill: Hazardous to Humans on the Water?

On Day 35 of the Gulf oil spill, I traveled with the ABC News dive team in the Gulf of Mexico as the doctor on board, reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and BP's use of the dispersant Corexit.

Good Morning America weather anchor Sam Champion and Philippe Cousteau Jr., renowned environmentalist and oceanographer, dove into the Gulf for the first underwater look at what Corexit has done. BP has used this dispersant widely, despite safety concerns from the Environmental Protection Agency.

VIDEO: Stunning high-def video from an underwater camera of the oil spill in the Gulf.
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We had our own safety concerns as well. Just two weeks before his dangerous hazmat dive into the oil, Sam underwent Mohs micrographic surgery for a skin cancer on his left shoulder live on "Good Morning America." So part of my duties as I traveled with him were as a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon to assess his surgical wound before and immediately after his dives. This also meant extra precautions for Sam's dives; happily, despite strenuous and physically demanding conditions both above and underwater, Sam's surgical site was successfully protected from the oil, dispersant, and contaminated water throughout the day.

The same could not be said for the waters of the Gulf. With over 600,000 gallons of dispersant dumped in the gulf so far, no longer is oil confined to a slick sheen on the water's surface. Exclusive, underwater ABC News video shows oil on the surface is just that -- the surface of a growing cloud of countless underwater droplets of oil. In what amounts to be an environmental experiment, tiny oil droplets are now part of the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico, the lasting impact of which is simply unknown.

The oil leaking into the Gulf, composed of hydrocarbons -- some in the form of brown liquid oil and some in the form of volatile, toxic and flammable gases -- is harmful not only to marine life, but also potentially harmful to front line clean-up workers.

Fishermen Sickened: Oil Spill to Blame?

Indeed, on day 37 of the Gulf spill, ABC news reported that nine fisherman in the Gulf suffered from severe nausea, headaches and trouble breathing, requiring the entire fleet of 125 boats in the area to evacuate and return to shore for medical evaluation. Four fishermen were taken to local hospitals. Although the cause of these symptoms has not yet been verified, the symptoms are consistent with oil or volatile organic compound gas exposure, though they could also represent heat exhaustion from harsh conditions on the open seas.

In light of the potential hazards, special medical and safety precautions were in place to protect the entire dive team on the nearly 20-hour dive expedition given the toxic nature of both the oil and dispersant. To protect the dive team from skin exposure to oil droplets and dispersant, the divers and underwater cameramen donned 30-pound oil and waterproof vulcanized rubber hazmat dive suits and 30-pound hard metal helmets. In addition, divers were kept completely dry and insulated from oil and dispersant with a special neck apparatus as well as cuffed gloves.

Immediately after emerging from oil-contaminated waters, divers underwent standardized decontamination procedures outlined by the Association of Diving Contractors. Hazmat dry suits were scrubbed with degreasing products and removed immediately. Divers then quickly showered after the decontamination procedure to remove any oil residue.

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