He isn’t just dealing with a mysterious cough or unexplainable skin irritations. Orvind Johnson doesn’t have to wonder if his time spent cleaning up the 2010 oil spill carried negative health implications. He’s sure of it.
“See, I lost my toe from BP,” Johnson explained, following a Jan. 18 community meeting concerning possible health effects of the spill.
Like many Gulf Coast residents, the man had immersed himself in clean-up operations. Johnson worked for P2S—a clean-up contractor with BP—and was stationed at Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach.
When Johnson talked about his lost toe, he used his thumb as a visual reference. He explained how workers were required to routinely switch out their oiled rubber boots for a clean pair. During this process—on a tarp on a windy stretch of beach—oily sand gathered in Johnson’s boot and proceeded to grind out a wound that would eventually send the worker to a hyperbaric chamber to allow for healing.
A lost toe is easy to grasp. Most health complaints emanating from the spill-worker community are less tangible, and perhaps due to that, more disturbing.
“I’m breathing hard,” said Charles Everhart. “I’ve never had any health issues. I was totally ignorant about what it might be related to.”
Everhart also worked locally for P2S—“My job was basically policing the beach, picking up tarballs”—and now complains of ailments both physical and mental. He can’t breathe as easy and his vision keeps playing tricks on him.
“When I look at a white wall,” Everhart said, “I can see things crawling around.”
In an effort to get a handle on the possible health ramifications of the oil spill, the federal government is conducting a long-term regional health study. The GuLF STUDY team—having already made the rounds in other Gulf Coast states—made its way to Florida this week.
Dr. Dale Sandler, head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Epidemiology Branch, is directing the study. She was encouraged by the large turnout at the meeting in Gulf Breeze.
“Well, this is great,” Sandler said, after asking spill workers to raise their hands. “This is better than usual.”
Sandler’s team is looking to sign up 55,000 participants for the study. After an initial telephone interview, there will be a home visit and collection of biological samples—blood, urine, hair, toenails, house dust—before a series of follow-up meetings over the next 10 years.
Earlier in the day, Sandler had broken down the current numbers for local government and health officials. Of the more than 64,000 workers it has attempted to reach, the team has made contact with 11,446. Almost 10,000 have completed the phone interview, but less than 7,000 were eligible for a home visit. Just over 4,300 have agreed to a visit.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Sandler had noted just prior to heading down to the Florida meetings. “We’ve set this ambitious goal for ourselves.”
People gathered in an upstairs room at the Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church for the local meeting—the first of the two Florida stops—were interested in a number of issues. Some wanted to know if the study would report back with an individual’s health particulars—“we’re mostly banking things away”—or provide health care for issues discovered.
“There’s been nothing formally set up to deal with people who think they may have a health issue,” Sandler told them. “We’ve been talking to government leaders and trying to get this going—but it hasn’t happened, sorry.”
Some local clean-up workers were interested in what the health impacts of the chemical dispersants might be. Others wondered about toxicity levels in their blood.
“That’s actually an important question—the toxicity levels,” Sandler said, explaining the study would not be pursuing that angle. “There’s a scientific reason for that. The chemicals that we measure in your blood only tell us what you were exposed to yesterday, not what you were exposed to during the spill.”
One man asked if the study would be interested in looking into his toxicity levels, which he had measured during the clean-up efforts.
“I had mine done during the peak,” he told the doctor, “because I was out every day for six months.”
“That would be very useful to us,” Sandler said.
During the GuLF STUDY’s previous tour—in Mississippi and Louisiana last fall—the group encountered workers who have resorted to detoxification methods in an effort to rid their bodies of toxins. Former senator and Louisianan doctor Mike Robicheux—who has emerged as a figurehead of sorts for the spill-related detox movement—attended one meeting and discussed the issue briefly with the federal team.
Prior to leaving for Florida, Sandler explained that her team will not be exploring Robicheux’s detox territory.
“I think his heart is in the right place,” Sandler said of the Louisianan and his detox theory. “I don’t know a whole lot about it. It may work, but it’s not—it’s not part of western medicine, it’s not what I do.”
Spill workers at the Gulf Breeze meeting pointed out that contractors had routinely collected physical information from them on site. Sandler said that much of that information has been filed in a “central warehouse” that the U.S. Coast Guard is overseeing.
“Not systematically—they were dumped in boxes,” she explained. “My team has been trying to get that information.”
Someone in attendance suggested the reports had probably been shredded. A couple of others bristled at the Coast Guard’s involvement.
“You may think in the shredder,” Sandler assured, “but there are lots of pieces of paper in these boxes in this warehouse.”
“You know the Coast Guard was working for BP?” Johnson asked Sandler.
“I don’t know that,” Sandler replied. “I think there was certainly tight control on information. Who was the tight control? I don’t know. I think the issue was you-don’t-want-to-cause-a-panic.”
“We’re talking about the oil spill, not UFOs,” Johnson said.
There were also concerns about the study’s funding, a portion of which has been provided by BP. Some people thought the company’s connection posed a conflict, while others wanted to know why BP wasn’t funding the entire thing. Sandler said she often gets “asked from both directions.”
Several people raised the issue of tourists. The clean-up workers recalled removing oil from beaches populated with summer visitors.
“I personally saw stay-off-the-beach signs covered up with garbage bags on July Fourth weekend,” said one man.
Sandler said there were no plans to include tourists in the study. Earlier, at the Escambia County Emergency Operations Center, she had explained the reasoning to officials.
“The reason we’re focused on the workers—first of all, we had a list,” she told them.
Those present at the community meeting were also concerned about the possible impacts on residents living near sites where the collected oil was dumped.
“That’s a concern,” Sandler agreed.
Workers also asked why they had not been provided more safety gear. One man recalled how his crew wasn’t provided with any respirators.
“We’re sitting there breathing it in,” the man remembered. “They said, ‘it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.’”
“Very bad idea for them to respond that way,” Sandler said. “It’s an important question … it was really hot … I know there are concerns that people were not allowed to wear respirators.”
The doctor told those gathered for the meeting that she understood their concerns, and that she empathized with them and the decisions they had made. Earlier, at the emergency operation’s center, she had noted how the team was finding that many of the workers were “chronically out of work.”
“Sometimes people make choices—‘I need the money and I’ll worry about the exposure later,’” she told the workers gathered at the Methodist church.
Sandler said that her team was not sure what exactly to expect. Some things they will be looking for include an increase in asthma cases, difficulty breathing or other lingering respiratory problems. The team will also be looking to see what effects certain components of the oil or chemical dispersants used during clean-up might have on people’s mental state.
“Whether that means people are going to have memory problems two years from now, we don’t know,” Sandler said.
Following the meeting, Johnson said that he’s already experiencing problems beyond his missing toe.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “It’s vision, it’s memory loss.”
Out in the hallway, Cleophas Burrell said he’s grown concerned following his work during the spill. He’s noticed a couple of nagging health issues that hadn’t bothered him prior.
“I get tired quick,” Burrell said. “My nose starts running, like a cold or something.”
Everhart said he was glad the government was conducting a study into the issue of health impact following the 2010 oil spill.
“It’s going to give us an idea about what’s going on,” he said.
During her meeting with local officials, Dr. Sandler had noted the same. Out of 40 major oil spills, only eight health-effect studies had been conducted—and none with any meaningful long-term follow-up work. The GuLF STUDY, the doctor explained, aimed to provide an expansive resource on the region’s post-spill health.
“We recognize that there really was a gap in our understanding about what happens,” Sander told the officials, stressing the importance of the study. “We want this to be a national treasure.”