Regulators Eye Cleaning Solution In Oil Spill Workers’ Illnesses

Federal regulator are beginning to contradict BP’s assertion that health problems reported by oil spill clean up worker are unrelated to the disaster, and possibly the result of dehydration or food poisoning. According to McClatchy Newspapers, the feds suspect a cleaning solution may be playing a role in the workers’ illnesses.

Last Wednesday, several fishermen employed by BP to cleanup the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were hospitalized. The workers, who had been working on boats to clean up oil in Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, complained of dizziness, headaches and nausea. A spokesperson for West Jefferson Medical Center, where the sick men were taken, told the Associated Press that the their symptoms were believed to be the result of chemical irritation and dehydration. Some of the workers told doctors that they thought chemical dispersants used to break up the spill might have caused their symptoms.

On May 28, four more workers were transported to the hospital by helicopter, including two who complained of chest pains.

BP has denied that oil, dispersants or anything else related to the spill or its cleanup was to blame for the workers’ symptoms. The company’s CEO, Tony Hayward, even pointed to the possibility of food poisoning as a reason for the illnesses.

“You know, food poisoning is clearly a big issue when you have a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodation. It’s something we have to be very, very mindful of. It’s one of the big issues of keeping the army operating. You know, armies march on their stomachs,” Hayward said at the time.

But now, federal regulators are pointing to something else. Joseph T. Hughes Jr., the director of the worker education-training program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told McClatchy that a solution used for cleaning oil contaminated vessel decks “may have been one of the factors that contributed to sickening the workers.” A preliminary investigation by BP determined that the workers might not have been properly instructed on the use of the cleaner, McClatchy said.

That cleaning solution is no longer being used by workers, but a full-scale health hazard evaluation must be completed before officials can say for certain that the cleaner is a culprit in the illnesses.

Concerns have been growing about the safety of people BP has hired to clean up the spill. Last week, McClatchy reported on a memo from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that complained about “significant deficiencies” in BP’s handling of the safety of oil spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address its concerns.

Worker safety advocates have also urged OSHA to be more aggressive in pressing BP to improve to do a better job of protecting cleanup crews. One such advocate, Jeffrey Buchanan, with Oxfam America, told McClatchy that BP and its contractors “have proven themselves incapable of protecting their workers” by providing adequate training, gear, and information.

Similar concerns were raised in an affidavit filed by one of the workers who became ill last week. John Wunstell Jr., a commercial shrimper, is seeking a restraining order against BP in federal court, in order to compel the company to give the workers masks and not harass those who publicly voice their health concerns. He also asked the court to order the company to refrain from “altering, testing or destroying clothing or any other evidence or potential evidence” when workers become ill. Wunstell claims that when he was taken to the hospital after becoming sick, BP confiscated his clothing, and he was told it would not be returned.

The president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association recently told CNN that BP had threatened to fire fisherman – most of whom are unemployed because of the spill – from cleanup work if they complain about health problems. In some cases, workers have been threatened with firing if they wear masks, he said.

CNN also reported that fisherman it contacted did not want to speak publicly, with some expressing fears that they could lose their jobs with BP.

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