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

Many workers say they have breathing problems and memory loss.

ByMatt Gutman, Mark Abdelmalek, Brinda Adhikari and Ben Forer
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.

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.

"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.

Most worrisome to experts today is the fact that the government did no offshore testing for small, dangerous particles called particulate matter, and if BP has done any such testing, it has not published its findings.

In the first month after the accident, every government agency was relying on BP for offshore air quality testing. It turns out data released by BP one month after the spill reveals BP apparently only tested for two oil contaminants offshore. And small particles or oil aerosols apparently were not tested.

"We do know from previous studies that these kinds of oil aerosols can cause a powerful inflammatory reaction in the airways and can make people very sick," Dr. Solomon told ABC News.

Offshore Testing Timeline, Date Started:

ABC News confronted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson hoping to find answers. When asked whether the EPA should have taken more of a lead in testing the air offshore in the days after the spill instead of five weeks later, Jackson disagreed.

"I don't think so," she said. "[The] EPA is not an expert in occupational safety and worker safety, that's OSHA's job." In fact, Administrator Jackson is correct. The EPA does not have jurisdiction over air quality on the Gulf of Mexico.

OSHA declined ABC News' numerous interview requests and BP's chief operations for Gulf cleanup, Mike Utsler, said he didn't know whether anyone had become ill due to the spill.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who led the cleanup effort in the gulf, says that if it happened again he would be more judicious in employing Vessels of Opportunity.

"I think I'd be very judicious in employing Vessels of Opportunity in the future," Allen said. "I think they can be used effectively, but I think we need to understand the environment they're operating in, the impact on the people and the impact on the boats and I would say do we have this right before we take a step forward."

One-year later and with nowhere to turn in the gulf, these fishermen simply wait to see if they'll be among those contacted to be part of the government's study on cleanup workers.

But for now these fishermen and their families move forward with only each other to count on, in search of closure and afraid of what the future may bring.

"What I would like the outcome to be is for us to be told the truth," said Burnett. "Just tell us what happened to us … and then we can move on, seek whatever we have to do to try to get better. Move on with our lives."

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