Gulf Oil Spill: Fishermen Say They Are Sick from Cleanup; ABC News Investigation


His wife Wendy says she is worried. "When you look at him he's never smoked a day in his life. Someone who doesn't smoke should not have respiratory problems that he has now. He didn't have it before."

Respiratory symptoms aren't surprising to medical experts contacted by ABC News. In a 2002 spill off the coast of Spain, cleanup workers were twice as likely to have breathing problems as non-cleanup workers were. In another study, workers who worked more than twenty days on the oil were four times as likely to have breathing problems.

Solomon says, "These are the kind of symptoms that are being reported across the Gulf coast. This is very consistent with what we've seen reported after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and other oil spills around the world."

How Can Oil Make You Sick?

Turns out there are over 200 chemicals in oil, some more dangerous than others.

One of them is benzene -- a Group 1 carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is in the same class as radioactive iodine, arsenic, and asbestos.

Dr. Michael Harbut, an expert in occupational and environmental diseases who sees Gulf patients said, "I think there's a fairly high likelihood that we'll see some increase in some cancers in some of the populations with exposure to the chemicals." Harbut is Director of the Environmental Cancer Program at the Karmanos Cancer Institute.

But there's also particulate matter -- tiny particles carrying dangerous oil components that can get in the lungs and cause serious breathing problems.

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