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


"This is nothing new," said Harbut. "These are well-known health effects and the science is very strong."

For fishermen like Levy Burnett the prospect of not remembering their past torments them more than the possibility of cancer. Memory loss has been associated with exposure to chemicals in oil like toluene and xylene.

Burnett said he started forgetting important details about his life. He called his pastor and in the middle of conversation forgot whom he was talking to. Burnett said he needed to call his wife, Reba, to put it all together. She thought he was playing a joke on her.

"I said, 'No, Reba I'm serious. Who's Matt Dickinson?' And she says, 'Well, he's our pastor,'" Burnet told ABC News. "And I should know who Matt Dickinson is because I'm a deacon at my church."

Fisherman Malcolm Coco also suffers from memory loss.

"For me it's more like a short term memory loss, you forget what you're doing when you're doing things and going about your daily routine," said Coco.

Breathing problems, fear of cancer, memory loss – these are among the symptoms reported by fisherman despite months of reassurances from the government and BP that workers were safe.

What were BP and the government doing to protect the workers out at sea?

ABC News has been told that workers did not receive respirators from BP to protect them from breathing possibly-toxic air because the company was following advice from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency in charge of worker safety did conduct some air quality tests, but said it thought the respirators might do more harm than good.

"They pull very much on the heart, on the lungs; they are physical burdens if workers are already sick, if they're smokers in many cases it would be dangerous to give them respirators," said David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, on C-SPAN in June 2010.

Coco was part of a team that lit fires to burn the oil off the surface of the water.

"I was with the burn team," Coco told ABC News. "It was just spewing black and black everywhere."

"Those small boats that the fishermen were operating were much closer to the water surface. Much closer to the oil surface," said Dr. Solomon.

How Did The Government Know Whether the Air Was Safe?

After sifting through hundreds of pages of government data, we ultimately found that no government agency tested the air the workers out at sea were breathing until a month after the spill. Yet Most of the fisherman charged out within the first few days following the accident.

While the Environmental Protection Agency conducted extensive air quality tests onshore, the same cannot be said offshore. The first offshore EPA air quality test was not performed until May 17, nearly a month after the spill, and the EPA conducted offshore air quality tests on four days over a six-day period.

Technically, the EPA does not have jurisdiction over the air quality in the Gulf and released a statement on its website that said it would let the Coast Guard and OSHA handle offshore safety. The statement said, "EPA does not anticipate conducting additional off-shore sampling but will continue its sampling and monitoring efforts on land."

Although OSHA did conduct offshore tests for a variety of oil components, OSHA didn't start testing until nearly 5 weeks after the spill. The Coast Guard arrived even later on the scene to test air quality -- nearly 2 months after the spill.

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