There is no sign as yet of any significant success by the BP to staunch the oil flow from the wrecked rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Six thousand barrels of oil were captured through a new technique - but then the quantum represents hardly third to a half of the estimated daily leakage since Deep Horizon exploded and sank on April 20.
President Obama is livid, but nothing much can be done, it looks like. Meantime concerns over the health effects of the spill are growing.
In the six weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, an estimated 21 million to 45 million gallons of crude has poured into the Gulf. Hundreds of BP contractors have fanned out along the Gulf, deploying boom, spraying chemicals to break up the oil, picking up oil-soaked debris and trying to keep the creeping slick out of the sensitive marshes and away from the tourist-Mecca beaches.
In one of the more publicized incidents, late last week seven workers performing skimming operations from boats were taken to hospitals because of sudden illness. An investigation is underway, but it appears the symptoms may have resulted from exposure to a cleaning substance, said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The website of the federal government's Health department says:
For most people, brief contact with small amounts of light crude oil and oil spill dispersants will do no harm. However, longer contact can cause a rash and dry skin. Dispersants can also irritate your eyes. Breathing or swallowing dispersants can also cause health effects.
If you are concerned that you have been exposed to oil or dispersants, see your doctor.
Oil spill response workers may be exposed to many different chemical, physical, biological, and psychological hazards.
Chemical exposures may include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, oil mist, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and diesel fumes.
Physical hazards may include ergonomic hazards, excessive noise levels, sun exposure and heat stress. Injuries may occur due to slips, trips, and falls on slippery or uneven walking and working surfaces.
Other safety hazards are associated with the use of tools, equipment, machinery, and vehicles.
Biological hazards include possible exposure to biting or venomous insects or other animals.
Psychological hazards may include witnessing traumatic injuries or death, inability to help affected wildlife, and fatigue.
Fatigue may result from working in a fast-paced environment, working extended shifts, and doing heavy labor or demanding cognitive tasks such as problem-solving and decision-making.
Employers should train oil spill response workers about their potential hazards and safe work practices to prevent and control these hazards.
All workers should be provided with the appropriate tools, equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and protective clothing needed to perform their job tasks. Workers should be trained in the appropriate care and use of this equipment. PPE should be selected based on identification of the hazards, protective qualities (such as oil resistance) and suitability for the tasks performed.
An occupational health and injury surveillance system should be put in place as soon as possible. The prompt reporting of injuries and illnesses should be emphasized, the website stresses.
"There is overwhelming evidence that many of the compounds found in crude oil are dangerous," said James Giordano, director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.
Brief contact with crude oil is not considered harmful, but sustained exposure or high doses can sicken people rapidly, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, assistant medical director for the California Poison Control System.
"If you breathe them or ingest them or absorb them through skin, they can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, even changes in mental status," Rangan said. "The longer you're out there and being exposed, the higher the risk." Though the flu-like symptoms reported by some cleanup workers in recent days have been dismissed by some authorities as the result of heat, fatigue or food poisoning, they are similar to what would be expected from crude oil toxicity, Rangan added.
"They shouldn't be dismissed," he said. "You should pretty much presume these symptoms are from the crude oil before assuming otherwise."
Timing of exposure makes a big difference, said toxicologist LuAnn White, director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health in New Orleans.
"Oil changes over time," she said. "When it's first released, it comes up and sits on the water. Volatile compounds in the oil, such as those that would go into gasoline or solvents the most toxic components evaporate on top of the water."
The oil drifting to beaches and wetlands "weathered oil" has lost most of the volatile components and is not as toxic. So have the tar balls, weathered oil that has been shaped by wind and waves into clumps.
"The workers on the beach picking up the tar balls and gooey stuff should wear gloves and boots and not let it come into contact with the skin. But they don't need a respirator based on what compounds are there," White said.
One of the trickiest issues in assessing probable health effects is the poor record from prior spills, wrote Shari Roan in Los Angeles Times.
"Several people who worked on the Valdez spill complained of health problems," added Dr. Stephen Cunnion, medical director for the Center for Health Policy and Preparedness at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Skin and respiratory problems were the most common complaint. Little is known about longer-term effects.
"Not following up on people in these situations has always been a problem," Cunnion said.
Court records showed more than 6,700 workers involved in the Exxon Valdez clean up suffered respiratory problems which the company attributed to a viral illness, not chemical poisoning.
Dennis Mestas represented the only known worker to successfully settle with Exxon over health issues. According to the terms of that confidential settlement, Exxon did not admit fault.
Michael J. Schneider, an attorney who decided against filing a class-action lawsuit in the 1990s involving the Valdez workers, said proving a link between oil exposure and health problems is very difficult.
"As a human being you listen to enough and you've got to believe they're true," he said. "The problem is the science may not be there to support them ... Many of the signs and symptoms these people complained of are explainable for a dozen different reasons it's certainly coincidental they all shared a reason in common."
Similar to the Valdez cleanup, there have been concerns in the Gulf that workers aren't being supplied with enough protective gear. Workers have been spotted in white jumpsuits, gloves and booties but no goggles or respirators.
"If they're out there getting lightheaded and dizzy every day then obviously they ought to come in, and there should be respirators and other equipment provided," said LuAnn White, director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health. She added that most of the volatile components that could sicken people generally evaporate before the oil reaches shore.
BP PLC's Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said reports of workers getting sick are being investigated but noted that no one has pinpointed the cause. Suttles said workers were being given "any safety equipment" needed to do their jobs safely.