Reporting from Venice, La., and Los Angeles —
Some fishermen who have been hired by BP to clean up the gulf oil spill say they have become ill after working long hours near waters fouled with oil and dispersant, prompting a Louisiana lawmaker to call on the federal government to open mobile clinics in rural areas to treat them.
The fishermen report severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing. Concerned by the reports, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking the agency's help providing medical treatment, especially in Plaquemines Parish, a southern region where many fishermen live.
Melancon said he expected BP to fund the clinics, but his spokeswoman said Tuesday the company had not responded to last week's request for financial assistance.
George Jackson, 53, has been fishing since he was 12 and took a BP cleanup job after the massive oil spill forced the closure of fisheries and left him unemployed. As he was laying containment booms Sunday, he said, a dark substance floating on the water made his eyes burn.
"I ain't never run on anything like this," Jackson said. Within seconds, he said, his head started hurting and he became nauseated.
Like other cleanup workers, Jackson had attended a training class where he was told not to pick up oil-related waste. But he said he wasn't provided with protective equipment and wore leather boots and regular clothes on his boat.
"They [BP officials] told us if we ran into oil, it wasn't supposed to bother us," Jackson said. "As far as gloves, no, we haven't been wearing any gloves."
David Michaels, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, reviewed the conditions for cleanup workers, pledging this month that the federal government would ensure workplace safety in a toxic environment.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Hospitals warned that oil cleanup workers "should avoid skin contact, and oral cavity or nasal passage exposure to oil spill products [by] using appropriate clothing, respiratory protection, gloves and boots."
Meanwhile the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been cautioning since the April 20 offshore leak began in the Gulf of Mexico that the oil spewing from the undersea well is harmful to human and animal health.
Even the EPA's monitoring of air quality on the gulf shoreline, 50 miles from the oil leak, has detected petroleum odors strong enough to cause sickness. The agency's website warns coastal residents: "Some of these chemicals may cause short-lived effects like headache, eye, nose and throat irritation, or nausea."
BP spokesman Graham McEwen said Tuesday he was unaware of any health complaints among cleanup workers, noting that the company had taken hundreds of samples of so-called volatile organic carbons, such as benzene, and all the levels were well within federal safety standards.
McEwen said the fishermen the company is training are not being deployed into areas that require respirators or breathing apparatus. Those who are working for BP laying booms or skimming oil are issued protective coveralls and gloves, he said.
To Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist who studied the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska, it's "deja vu."
"What we saw with Exxon Valdez was a parallel track — sick animals and sick people. Harbor seals were looking like they were drunk and dying … and autopsies showed brain lesions.…What are we exposing these poor fishermen to?" Ott said.
Some fishermen suspect that health problems are going unreported because, with so much of the gulf closed to commercial fishing, unemployed shrimpers and oystermen are grateful for the cleanup jobs.
"It an unwritten rule, you don't bite the hand that feeds you," said George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Assn. in St. Bernard Parish, who said many fishermen have told him about feeling ill.
Barisich says he won't risk going out, especially after a crew told him of working around the Chandeleur Islands, a barrier chain hit by the slick. "All the birds were walking around like a bunch of zombies," he said.
At a recent meeting fishermen complained to a BP representative about illness, Barisich said, but got little response. "BP has the opinion that they are not getting sick," he said. Barisich said the company is not providing respirators because "if they give us that type of equipment then they admit there are health hazards."
He acknowledged that it was difficult for fishermen to prove their ailments since they seemed to recover after leaving the water. "It becomes a matter of honor," Barisich said. "You left in the morning, you were OK. Out on the water, you've got a pounding headache, throwing up."
George Arnesen was congested and coughing the day after he went shrimping off California Point. His wife, Kindra, 32, made him see a doctor. The 42-year-old was given a shot of antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory and a prescription for three medications.
"My husband's never had a breathing problem in his life," Kindra Arnesen said
Santa Cruz reported from Venice and Cart from Los Angeles.