One of the first things BP did after oil started gushing into the Gulf was to spray more than 1.1 million gallons of a dispersant with the optimistic name "Corexit" onto the oil. Then BP hired Louisiana fishermen and others to help with cleanup and containment operations. About two weeks later, over seventy workers fell sick, complaining of irritated throats, coughing, shortness of breath and nausea. Seven workers were hospitalized on May 26. Workers were engaged in a variety of different tasks in different places when they got sick: breaking up oil sheen, doing offshore work, burning oil and deploying boom. BP officials speculated that their illnesses were due to food poisoning or other, unrelated reasons, but others pointed out how unlikely these other causes were, since the sick workers were assigned to different locations.
Nalco, the company that makes Corexit, declined to make public the ingredients they use in Corexit, to protect the proprietary trade secret composition of the product, but they did turn over a list of ingredients to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sat on the information, prompting a flood of complaints over several weeks from members of Congress, public health advocates and doctors who had no idea how to treat people exposed to the secret chemical concoction. On June 9, EPA quietly released a full list of the ingredients in Corexit products on their Web site. Two variants of the product were used on the Gulf oil spill: Corexit 9527, used early on in the Gulf, contains 2-butoxyethanol, which caused persistent health problems among people who worked on cleaning up the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Another ingredient, propylene glycol, is a common solvent and lubricant. The other iteration of the product, Corexit 9500, also contains propylene glycol, as well as light petroleum distillates and dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, a detergent and common ingredient in laxatives and stool softeners. The special handling instructions for Corexit 9500 say workers need to don long-sleeved shirts, chemical resistant gloves and chemical protective goggles when working with the chemical. Any contact with skin needs to be treated immediately with flushing and washing with soap.
The illnesses they have experienced have led workers to ask for better equipment to use for cleanup, including respirators, but BP says air quality monitoring doesn't show a need for breathing equipment, according to OSHA standards. Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) says BP is refusing to acknowledge any liability for health problems, and that the only thing chemical dispersants have accomplished is to make some of the oil less visible on the ocean's surface by driving it into underwater plumes, which BP denies exist. He likened the spraying of Corexit on the ocean to the U.S.'s spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, a defoliant that by some accounts resulted in as many as 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. Nadler expressed concern that the situation with BP and Corexit reminds him of the World Trade Center where the government said the air was safe for workers and told them there was no need for concern and no need for respirators, and thousands fell ill with chronic health problems.
History May Be Repeating Itself
"I cannot believe we are repeating the same mistake again, the same mistake that we made in the weeks after 9-11 when the United States government caused thousands of people to get sick by denying that the air was toxic," Nadler said before Congress June 9. He insisted we are doing the same thing again, only BP is doing it this time, employing thousands of workers to labor in what amounts to unsafe conditions. He predicted BP will try to deny liability for worker's illnesses, and predicted that these kinds of health problems will spread to all the countries bordering the gulf, and the problem will eventually become an international crisis.