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

Many workers say they have breathing problems and memory loss.

ByABC News
April 18, 2011, 10:12 AM

April 19, 2011 -- In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an army of fishermen, 10,000 strong, joined the cleanup effort. Today, almost a year after the spill, many say they are suffering from debilitating health effects that studies suggest are consistent with prolonged exposure to chemicals in oil.

An ABC News investigation found that many workers were told they did not need respirators, advice BP received from the government, and that no government agency tested the air the workers were breathing out at sea until a month after the spill.

BP continues to insist that "no one should be concerned about their health being harmed by the oil." In fact, BP says, "The monitoring results showed that the levels generally were similar to background conditions – in other words, concentrations that would have been expected before or in the absence of the spill."

Tell that to Todd Rook, age 45, who says he had pneumonia four times in the last eight months and never once before the oil spill.

Or to Malcolm Coco, 42, who says he has had blood in his urine and suffered from chest pains and memory loss.

Or ask Reba Burnett, whose husband Levy's job was to find oil, ride through it and disperse it. Reba says her husband is just "different" from the fit person he was a year ago.

"I think sometimes he's just blank. I don't know if people understand what I mean when I say just blank."

BP hired fishermen as part of the Vessels of Opportunity Program, where they took their own boats out to sea to stop the oil before it hit the shore. There were more than 3,000 of these boats out there- that's more than 10,000 proud fishermen riding through the oil, burning it, skimming it, laying down those booms, for hours and days- sometimes weeks out at sea without coming home—all to save their precious waters and livelihood.

Slideshow: Faces of the Fishermen

WATCH: Hear the Fishermen's stories in their own words.

And now they're speaking out for the first time, but they may just be the latest victims of oil spills. Only two weeks ago, a major study in the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed 26 studies from the eight biggest oil spills around the world. And in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Gina Solomon, co-director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Program at the University of California, San Francisco says, "The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico poses direct threats to human health from inhalation or dermal contact with the oil and dispersant chemicals."

"Always coughing -- wake up in the middle of the night coughing." That's how Mike Fraser, who captained his own boat during the relief effort, describes his life after the spill.