Two Years Later: BP's Toxic Legacy
by Antonia Juhasz
April 18, 2012 - This article appeared in the May 7, 2012
edition of The Nation.
On March 3 Nicole Maurer learned of the proposed settlement
between BP and hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast
businesses and residents harmed by its 2010 oil spill, the
largest in US history.
In her cramped but immaculate trailer on a muddy back road
in the small town of Buras, Louisiana, Nicole tells me that
the two years since the tragedy began on April 20, 2010,
have been "a total nightmare" for her family. Not only has
her husband William's fishing income all but vanished along
with the shrimp he used to catch but the entire family is
plagued by persistent health problems.
For months following the onset of the disaster, she says,
there was an oil smell outside their home and "a constant
cloudiness, like a haze, but it wasn't fog." Her 6-year-old
daughter Brooklyn's asthma got worse, and she now has
constant upper respiratory infections. "Once it goes away,
it comes right back," Nicole explains.
Before the spill, Elizabeth, 9, was her "well kid." But now
Elizabeth constantly suffers from rashes, allergies,
inflamed sinuses, sore throat and an upset stomach.
Nicole stares at me and catches her breath; she apologizes
for the tears that flow down her face. "It's a touchy
subject," she says. "They are just tired. Tired of being
William worked from June to October 2010 as part of the
Vessels of Opportunity program that paid the fishermen BP
put out of business to use their boats to clean up its oil.
William transported giant bags, called bladders, used to
collect oil, to the shore. When he came home at night, says
Nicole, his clothes "smelled oily." Not only were his
clothes blackened; so was William.
William's symptoms began with coughing, then headaches and
skin rashes, followed by vomiting and diarrhea. About three
to six months later, he started bleeding from his ears and
nose and suffering from a heavy cough.
"I ain't got no money for a doctor," William quietly tells
me, staring down at his hands in his lap. Medicaid covers
the kids, but Nicole and William do not have health
insurance. "We didn't know we were gonna get sick. Now I get
sick, I stay sick. I don't sleep. I stay stressed out more
than anything. I got bags under my eyes I never had before.
I just don't know if I wanna show people who I am."
Nicole is fairly confident that the settlement is not going
to bring justice. So she wants just one thing: enough money
to get her entire family out of the Gulf Coast for good.
Take Action: Help Gulf Residents Reclaim Their Lives
On February 27, US District Court Judge Carl Barbier was to
hear opening arguments against BP, Transocean, Halliburton
and all the companies involved in the disaster. The case
consolidates virtually every civil charge brought against
the companies by individuals, business and property owners,
and the federal and state governments. It is the most
complex and significant environmental litigation in history.
As this article goes to press it seems unlikely that the
plaintiffs will ever get their day in court. Instead, the
judge has issued continuances to allow more time for a
series of settlement deals to be negotiated.
As information about the settlement negotiations comes to
light, several critical issues are not being adequately
addressed - including the human health crisis brought on by
Many people whose health was adversely affected by the spill
would be excluded. The Medical Benefits Settlement covers
about 90,000 people who are qualifying cleanup workers (out
of an estimated 140,000) and 110,000 coastal residents
living within one-half to one mile of the coast (out of a
coastal population of 21 million). Although it would cover
"certain respiratory, gastrointestinal, eye, skin and
neurophysiological" conditions, it excludes mental health
and a host of physical ailments, including cancers, birth
defects, developmental disorders and neurological disorders
The proposed settlement provides a health outreach program
and twenty-one years of health monitoring - but not
healthcare. If "nonspecified" ailments occur in this time
frame, the patient must sue BP and prove causality to
receive a settlement. Accepting the settlement also means
forgoing the right to sue BP for punitive damages. BP
estimates its total remaining liability for individuals and
businesses at $7.8 billion - a lowball figure for many
reasons, and much less than would be necessary if large
numbers of people do suffer cancers and other chronic
diseases as a result of the spill.
Also excluded from any settlement are 194,000 individuals
and businesses who accepted one-time final payments from the
Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), which was established by
BP on June 16, 2010, to comply with the Oil Pollution Act's
mandate that it fully compensate victims of the spill.
Unable to afford to wait out a legal process, 95,000 people
accepted payments of $5,000, and 45,000 accepted payments
averaging $15,000, agreeing to give up their right to sue BP
or any of the companies for any reason, including any
harmful health effects. GCCF administrator Kenneth Feinberg
was "dubious" about health complaints, as he told the Times-
Picayune in September. He went on to question whether
cleanup workers suffering from respiratory conditions "are
going to be able to provide any support medically or
occupationally for the proposition that they're entitled to
get paid. We'll see." In the end, except for claims from
those injured on the Deepwater Horizon, the GCCF did not
honor a single request for compensation related to health
* * *
In August 2011 the Government Accountability Project (GAP)
began its investigation of the public health threats
associated with the oil spill cleanup, the results of which
will be released this summer. "Over twenty-five
whistleblowers in our investigation have reported the worst
public health tragedies of any investigation in GAP's
thirty-five-year history," Shanna Devine, GAP legislative
campaign coordinator, told me.
Witnesses reported a host of ailments, including eye, nose
and throat irritation; respiratory problems; blood in urine,
vomit and rectal bleeding; seizures; nausea and violent
vomiting episodes that last for hours; skin irritation,
burning and lesions; short-term memory loss and confusion;
liver and kidney damage; central nervous system effects and
nervous system damage; hypertension; and miscarriages.
Cleanup workers reported being threatened with termination
when they requested respirators, because it would "look bad
in media coverage," or they were told that respirators were
not necessary because the chemical dispersant Corexit was
"as safe as Dawn dishwashing soap." Cleanup workers and
residents reported being directly sprayed with Corexit,
resulting in skin lesions and blurred eyesight. Many noted
that when they left the Gulf, their symptoms subsided, only
to recur when they returned.
According to the health departments of Louisiana,
Mississippi and Alabama, from June to September 2010, when
they stopped keeping track, more than 700 people sought
health services with complaints "believed to be related to
exposure to pollutants from the oil spill." But this is
likely an extreme undercount, as most people did not know to
report their symptoms as related to the oil spill, nor did
their physicians ask. Like virtually everyone I have
interviewed on the Gulf Coast over the past two years -
including dozens for this article - Nicole Maurer's doctors
did not even inquire about her children's exposure to oil or
It will take years to determine the actual number of
affected people. The National Institute of Environmental
Health Sciences (NIEHS), with financial support from BP, is
conducting several multiyear health impact studies, which
are only just getting under way. I spoke with all but one of
the studies' national and Gulf Coast directors. "People were
getting misdiagnosed for sure," says Dr. Edward Trapido,
director of two NIEHS studies on women's and children's
health and associate dean for research at the Louisiana
State University School of Public Health. "Most doctors
simply didn't know what questions to ask or what to look
for." There are only two board-certified occupational
physicians in Louisiana, according to Trapido, and only one
also board-certified as a toxicologist: Dr. James Diaz,
director of the Environmental and Occupational Health
Sciences Program at Louisiana State University.
Diaz calls the BP spill a toxic "gumbo of chemicals" to
which the people, places and wildlife of the Gulf continue
to be exposed.
BP released one Exxon Valdez - sized oil spill every three
to four days for the eighty-seven days it took to cap the
well, for an estimated total of 210 million gallons, plus
500,000 tons of natural gas. It applied some 2 million
gallons of Corexit from the air and water. It also conducted
about 410 "controlled burns" of the oil on the surface of
the water. The spill polluted the air with particulate
matter and a visible haze, and polluted the water, exposing
Gulf seafood to a host of harmful toxins.
The federal government determined that Gulf residents and
response workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, but
has tentatively claimed that only response workers were at
risk for chronic health problems. One purpose of the NIEHS
studies, however, is to monitor Gulf residents for chronic
symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control reported in August
2010 that "the samples collected in places where non-
response workers would spend time showed none of those
substances at levels high enough to cause long-term health
effects." But the CDC didn't consider the chemical
dispersants. There are other problems with the government's
analyses. As the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has noted, the
Environmental Protection Agency pronounced Gulf air quality
normal without having data from past years to back up its
claim; reported daily averages even though pollutants and
chemicals typically came in concentrated bursts, often
carried by the wind; lacked sufficient monitoring
capabilities to cover affected coastal areas; and was not
monitoring for all the most harmful chemicals. As
microbiologist and toxicologist Wilma Subra explains,
although the EPA identified asphaltenes as a cause of health
problems, it did not sample for their presence.
* * *
Writing in the American Journal of Disaster Medicine, Dr.
Diaz observed that the ailments appearing among Gulf
response workers and residents mirrored those reported after
previous oil spills, including the Exxon Valdez spill, and
warned that chronic adverse health effects, including
cancers, liver and kidney disease, mental health disorders,
birth defects and developmental disorders - a list that is
repeated by several of the NIEHS study physicians - should
be anticipated among sensitive populations and those most
heavily exposed. In an interview, Diaz added that
neurological disorders should also be anticipated.
Moreover, John Howard, director of the National Institute
for Occupational Safety and Health, told Congress, "Previous
oil spill response efforts have reported acute and chronic
health effects in response workers. These studies may
underestimate the health effects associated with oil
response work since the magnitude and duration of the
Deepwater Horizon response is unprecedented."
All emphasize the need for additional research, as there is
a shocking dearth of long-term studies on the impact of oil
spills. It is difficult to get funding for this work, while
many experts in the field are employed by the oil industry.
When data are acquired, they are often "lost" to litigation
culminating in settlements with nondisclosure agreements.
It is known, however, that crude oil is toxic to humans,
plants and wildlife, capable of causing serious debilitation
and even death, depending on the amount and duration of
exposure. Crude oil contains high levels of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs), including known carcinogens and chemicals
affecting the central nervous system.
Crude oil contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),
a group of more than 100 chemicals that are highly toxic and
tend to persist in the environment for long periods. PAHs,
some of which are human carcinogens, can bioaccumulate up
the food chain (i.e., the toxins stored in the body of an
organism are passed along when the body is consumed by a
larger organism). Like VOCs, they target the skin, eyes,
ears, nose, throat and lungs. But the EPA was not sampling
for PAHs in the air until the very end of the spill.
Then there's Corexit, two types of which were used in the
Gulf: Corexit 9527A and 9500. The first type contains 2-BTE
(2-butoxyethanol), a toxic solvent that can injure red blood
cells (hemolysis), the kidneys and the liver. The CDC has
reported chronic and acute health hazards associated with
it. Corexit 9500 contains propylene glycol, which can be
toxic to people and is a known animal carcinogen. Both can
bioaccumulate up the food chain. Toxipedia Consulting
Services, a moderated wiki run by the Institute of
Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders, has found
"reports among Gulf residents and cleanup workers of
breathing problems, coughing, headaches, memory loss,
fatigue, rashes, and gastrointestinal problems [that] match
the symptoms of blood toxicity, neurotoxicity, adverse
effects on the nervous and respiratory system, and skin
irritation associated with exposure to the chemicals found
Gulf residents typically consume more seafood, and in a
wider variety, than most Americans do, putting them at
greater risk from seafood exposed to oil and Corexit.
Children, women who are or may become pregnant, and
subsistence fishers who eat much of what they catch are at
greatest risk, explains Dr. Cornelis Elferink of the
University of Texas Medical Branch, who is conducting the
NIEHS study on seafood safety. He tells me that areas of
concern include developmental issues for fetuses and
children, as well as cellular toxicity and cancer.
The danger posed by all these chemicals depends on three
factors: health status, length of exposure and amount of
exposure. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and the
infirm are the most susceptible. Tourists, coastal residents
and response workers were exposed in increasing degrees.
Combine these factors - such as children living on the
coast, coastal residents with pre-existing health conditions
and coastal residents employed as cleanup workers - and you
get the most severe effects.
* * *
Charles Taylor, 39, a refrigeration technician, describes
living in his Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, home, a half-
mile from the beach, as like "living next to a truck stop"
for months after the oil spill. There was "an overbearing
smell of almost like a diesel smell mixed with a chemical
smell." Charles was prescribed a nebulizer in the wake of
the spill, which he began taking to work with him every day
until he lost his job of ten years because of his failing
health. He'd have bouts of sickness, and was repeatedly
diagnosed with pneumonia and treated with antibiotics. It
would take three to four weeks to improve, and then he'd get
Charles believes that his exposure to oil and Corexit
inflamed his Crohn's disease, which had been in remission
for more than twenty years. Within a few weeks of the
disaster, he began to have bloody diarrhea. "I couldn't
work. The last two years here for me have been something
right out of a sci-fi horror movie. Except that it was real
and it happened to me," he says.
"Oh, sorry, I just had a BP moment," Steve Kolian tells me.
He's trying to recount the events of last year and trails
off, forgetting what he's talking about. Such bouts of
memory loss are common among those I interviewed and are
reported consistently across the Gulf. Steve and his Ecorigs
co-workers conducted several dives to study corals and
collect water samples for the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration after the spill. Collectively,
they have experienced "blood in our stool, bleeding from the
nose and eyes, nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps and
dizziness and confusion."
Like Kolian, diver Scott Porter has a persistent dermatitis
condition, among other ailments. Scott tells me it has a
nickname in the Gulf: "the BP rash."
Cleaning and caring for the beautiful beaches of South
Walton, Florida, was Keith Langner's dream job. His wife,
Andrea, tells me that she can count on one hand the number
of times he had missed a day of work in seven years. Her 6-
foot-2, 300-pound, 50-year-old husband was always "healthy,
independent and vibrant." After the oil spill, "It was just
a total disaster on the beach," Andrea explains. Without
special training, Keith was told to try to avoid the oil and
do his job. "He tried, but he said it was next to impossible
not to touch the stuff," Andrea says. "If a chair has oil on
it, it's his job to pick it up. He had to empty hundreds of
garbage bags up on the beach, in the bathroom; he couldn't
touch anything without getting exposure to this stuff."
Keith came home with his work clothes covered with oil.
"Everything would be covered in brown pooplike stuff."
Keith went to the emergency room in January 2010 with a
terrible headache he could not shake. He has since been
diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia, which commonly
affects people ages 55 to 75. Keith's dementia began at 49,
as his brain was deteriorating. Today, Keith sleeps about
three-quarters of the day. The rest of the time he is all
but unaware of his surroundings and his behavior. He is
physically violent and sexually inappropriate with his wife.
His children, ages 7, 9 and 20, are afraid of him. He cannot
be trusted in public, with car keys or even to feed himself.
His life expectancy is now, according to his wife, about
The most toxic chemicals found in oil are lipid-soluble,
which means that they accumulate in organs that contain a
lot of fat, like the brain. Consequently, those with the
greatest exposure "can get permanent brain damage, dementia,
as a result," Dr. Diaz explains.
Kindra and George Arnesen lived with their three children in
Venice, Louisiana. The family has suffered debilitating
health effects. When I ask Kindra her ethnicity, she
replies, "I'm a Bayou girl!" Nonetheless, the Arnesens
decided to leave. "Why am I moving?" Kindra asks me,
incredulous. "I don't want my children to be the energy
sacrifice for our nation. How could I? Damn shame on me if I
But Kindra is also not staying silent. As part of Gulf
Change, Kindra has helped organize regular protests to raise
awareness of the health crisis. On February 29 members
hosted a "funeral for the Gulf," with a procession from BP's
downtown New Orleans offices to Judge Barbier's courthouse.
They are supported by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Gulf
Restoration Network, and Louisiana Environmental Action
Network, among other groups.
Darla Rooks began captaining her own fishing boat at age 8,
"just me, my dog and my gun." Dressed all in black, she
walks at the back of the procession, unable to keep up
because of the numbness in her leg. It is among several
ailments she has experienced since the disaster. High above
her head she holds up a giant green sign that says, We Are
the World's Largest Scientific Experiment and We Demand
[Antonia Juhasz is covering the historic trial against BP
for The Nation with support from The Investigative Fund of
The Nation Institute. She is a leading oil and energy
analyst and author of several books, including Black Tide:
the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill (Wiley, 2011).
Research support for this article was provided by The
Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin
Foundation. Additional research by Lindsey Ingraham and Amit
Take Action: Help Gulf Residents Reclaim Their Lives
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