No Safe Harbor on Gulf Coast
Jerry Cope, Designer, Filmmaker, Environmental Writer, Eco Activist. September 2, 2010
Even as BP and US government officials continue to declare the oil spill over at Mississippi Canyon 252 and the cleanup operation an unqualified success, for the first time blood tests on sickened humans have shown signs of exposure to high levels of toxic chemicals related to crude oil and dispersants.
Some of the individuals tested have not been on the beaches, were not involved in any cleanup operations or in the Gulf water — they simply live along the Gulf Coast. Several of them are now leaving the area due to a combination of illness and economic hardship. As the media’s attention has moved on and the public interest wanes, the suffering and hardship for people along the entire Gulf Coast of the United States from Louisiana to Florida continues to worsen.
While BP and the government are scaling back cleanup operations and distancing themselves from legal liability for the environmental destruction, economic hardship, sickness and death resulting from the largest environmental disaster in our nation’s history, the situation continues to deteriorate.
The use of the Corexit dispersant 9500 and the highly toxic 9527 by BP, with the approval and assistance of the US Coast Guard and EPA, has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. Never before has such a huge quantity of the toxic compound been used anywhere on the planet. Most countries including NATO allies ban its use and will only grant approval as a last resort after other methods have failed. Britain has banned its use altogether. The NOAA provided extensive information summarizing other nation’s policies in regards to Corexit after Senator Barbara Mikulski demanded the information from EPA administrator Lisa Jackson during congressional hearings in July.
While the dispersant serves to break down crude oil on the surface and thus makes the oil invisible from the air, it is highly toxic and bioaccumulates in the marine food chain. In humans it is a known carcinogen and its use was widely condemned after Exxon/Valdez and the horrifying health effects on the populations exposed to it there. As it evaporates and becomes airborne, the toxic compounds have moved on shore, creating health impacts that, although apparently large from the numbers of people affected, the full extent is unknown. BP and the US government have effectively been performing the largest chemical experiment in history on a civilian population without their knowledge or consent.
Within two days after arriving in the region in mid-July, everyone on our team began getting sick. After our first day out on the water with Captain Lori of Dolphin Queen Cruises touring the lagoons around Orange Beach, Alabama, we all had extreme headaches.
During our boat tour, dispersant was visible covering the water everywhere. That evening I developed a gagging, coughing reflex that was so intense and persistent it was impossible to speak to my daughter on the phone. The symptoms typical for high levels of chemical exposure such as burning, itching eyes, constantly runny nose, chronic coughing, burning sore throat, chest congestion, and lethargy progressively intensified. Over the next several weeks these symptoms continued to worsen until I developed chemically-induced pneumonitis. B
efore leaving the area I had blood tests initiated to determine if the levels of exposure were high enough to be be detected. The musical activists Sassafrass and the tireless efforts of Michelle Nix allowed myself and several local residents to have blood drawn and tested by Metametrix for chemical exposure. Project Gulf Impact and the Coastal Heritage Society have also contributed greatly to air and water testing in the Gulf region affected by the spill. Project Gulf Impact has set up a dedicated medical help phone line at 504-814-0283. It has proven extremely difficult to find medical care providers who are willing to see patients who have been impacted by the oil spill due to the tremendous pressure exerted against hospitals, clinics, and physicians by BP. In numerous cases BP has provided financial payments to institutions and individuals in exchange for them agreeing not to allow their physicians or staff to see, advise, or treat anyone sickened as a result of the well blowout.
I spoke at length with Michael R. Harbut, MD, MPH, who is clinical professor of Internal Medicine and director of the Environmental Cancer Program at Wayne State University’s Karmanos Cancer Institute. Board Certified in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Harbut was Chair of the Occupational and Environmental Health Section of the American College of Chest Physicians, was Medical Coordinator of the Kibumbe Refugee Camp during the 1994 Civil War in Rwanda, where the death rate for patients under his care was 1/3 that of the remainder of the camp and was Chief US Medical Advisor to Poland’s Solidarity during the Cold War. His research has been published or presented in venues ranging from the New England Journal of Medicine to the White House.
JC: I wanted to speak with you and see what you thought of the test results we got back. As you know, some of the locals actually came back even higher than mine.
MH: First you have to remember the setting — this is New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; there is a history and a context in which things need to be placed. In my specialty, which is occupational and environmental medicine, there are not many of us who are board certified who actually take care of patients. The bulk of the physicians in our specialty are medical advisors or medical directors to large corporations, and many have never met a chemical they didn’t like. Sort of like Will Rogers. Part of the context is there is a physician whose name is Victor Alexander who was a specialist in my field. He worked in New Orleans at the Oxnar clinic and was seeing a lot of patients who worked for the petroleum companies and was reportedly fired for all of the work he did for his patients as opposed to the petroleum companies — what a doctor is supposed to do. So Victor Alexander then goes into private practice and the New Orleans police came and arrested him for robbing a bank.
MH: Yea, it gets way crazier. This is a guy who was doing very well personally, economically — it came out in trial that he had a half a million dollars in the bank and was making plenty of money. It is unlikely in terms of motive that he would rob a bank for 2,500 dollars. The video from the bank was analyzed by the retired chief of criminal identification for the FBI; he said there was no way it could have been Dr. Alexander robbing this bank. He went to trial twice, the judge threw out a lot of evidence that would have exonerated him and he was sent to prison for robbing a bank. The Louisiana State Medical Society refused to take away his license. Many physicians who do work or potentially could do work or have knowledge of the area in New Orleans know the story about Victor Alexander. The message is quite clear: Don’t mess around with the petroleum industry.
JC: I have been working mainly in the Orange Beach/Gulf Shores area of Alabama, and that’s where I got sick.
MH: Have you had a CAT scan?
JC: Not yet, although they want to do one at the National Jewish Respiratory Center in Denver.
MH: You have to do that. I was chairman of the Occupational and Environmental medicine section of the American College of Chest Physicians so I have a lot of experience in this. You really need to be seen by a physician who understands this is serious.
JC: It’s on the schedule when I get back to Colorado. What do you see when you look at the test results from myself and the other people down here? What do they tell you?
MH: Let me tell you one more thing before I forget. I think that the only way to come close to getting the ultimate answer down there is to — there has to be a federal task force if you will. A federal effort where there would be half a dozen or a dozen specialists in this field who would have the protection of the government either temporary commissions from the U. S. public health service or something like that. Who would be responsible for organizing all the science and all the medicine and trying to get people to deliver care down there. I just don’t think you are going to get many volunteers unless they know they have the protection of the government. The annals of environmental diseases are strewn with stories about physicians who have had their lives ruined.