"Very, Very Sick Population" Due to BP Oil and Dispersants, say Medical Experts, Scientists

On April 12, 2013, Bridge the Gulf and the Gulf Coast Fund convened a roundtable discussion with people working to bring attention to a public health crisis they have seen unfold since the BP disaster. Participants included a mother from a coastal Louisiana town overcome by chronic illness, a doctor, two scientists and a lawyer.

Kindra Arnesen (pictured) lives in Plaquemines Parish, where Louisiana becomes more ocean than land as it juts out into the Gulf. Her community was hit hard by Katrina and was still rebuilding five years later, but Arnesen describes it as “a very healthy community, a thriving community” before the BP disaster. Her husband is a 45-year-old commercial fisherman and she was shocked to see his health decline a few weeks after the disaster. She and her children also soon became  sick with chronic illnesses, and so did many others in her community.

Kindra says, “This is not something that we’re used to here. Our kids are bayou kids. They’re tough.” But she says the change in children’s health has been the most striking: “We have kids down here that are now over 80% bald because their hair has fallen out. Their noses are bleeding… I’ve watched these kids go from healthy, thriving children to a shell of themselves.” Her 11-year-old daughter has been ill for several years now, “She suffers from headaches, nausea, upper respiratory issues, heart palpitations, chest pains, fatigue.”
Dr. Michael Robichaux, a physician in Raceland, Louisiana, began to see many patients with similar symptoms and then discovered that, “People from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were all experiencing almost identical problems.” Robichaux sought out help, and was able to fund a detox clinic to treat chemical illnesses. The treatment improved the health of many patients, but the funds ran out. A former state senator, Robichaux is extremely frustrated with the BP settlement process related to public health impacts:
“Unfortunately the courts have let us down… I have not seen a single person who has gotten a nickel from BP for any of the illnesses. I’m talking about illnesses that are going to last for the rest of their lives. I had a young man at my home yesterday who can barely walk. He’s a 32-year-old who was in the peak of health before he began working on the Vessels of Opportunity program (the BP disaster clean up) and now he’s extraordinarily ill ... When the issue came to the courts, the courts completely negated the actual existence of these problems. I’ve got patients that are going to be disabled for the rest of their lives, such as this young man. And the problems that they have are not even included in compensatory portions of the agreement between BP and what was known as the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee. So there’s a lot of questions and very few answers out there for us. And we’re going to do the best to help these folks but it’s been an uphill battle to say the least.”

Scientist Dr. Wilma Subra has seen the symptoms across the Gulf while working with Louisiana Environmental Action Network to study the environmental and public health impacts of the BP Disaster. Subra has been working for decades to document the impact of toxic contamination on Gulf Coast communities and has been honored with a MacArthur “Genius” award. In recent years she has studied the health of coastal residents, BP clean up workers and tourists. Her survey of several hundred individuals from Louisiana to Florida found recurring symptoms including “headaches, recorded by 80-90% of those surveyed, dizziness 72%, respiratory impacts 70%” as well as “fatigue, skin lesions, memory loss, confusion, depression, neurological damage, decreased lung function, cardiovascular impacts, mental health impacts and many, many other acute and chronic health symptoms."

Subra said, "BP has declined to adequately acknowledge the human health impacts associated with exposure to the BP crude and the dispersants. This has resulted in a lack of adequate health care to address the health impacts that were and are continuing to be caused by the BP crude and dispersants. We have a very, very large and very, very sick population."

Subra sees the disaster as an ongoing environmental and public health crisis: "Three years after the BP disaster, the crude oil continues to be present in the subsurface waters of the Gulf of Mexico and continues to wash on shore on a daily basis into the wetlands, marshes, estuaries and beaches. Coastal community members and commercial fishermen continue to be exposed to the very toxic chemicals that are in the crude and continue to be made ill by their ongoing, chronic exposure to the crude oil in the environment in which they live, earn a living and recreate.”

Monique Harden with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights sees an underlying problem in our legal system that puts the burden of proof on those that are ill, to prove “that exposure to the BP crude oil and/or Corexit (dispersant), or the combination of both, caused the specific diagnosed physical illness.” And yet, “There’s no science to make that connection. But this is the burden that’s put on Kindra’s family and so many other folks in the Gulf region. And it’s a burden that’s sanctioned and entrenched in the legal system when it comes to environmental disasters like this one.”
Harden explains that in other famous cases where victims of toxic exposure were compensated – Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange and survivors of the September 11th World Trade Center collapse and cleanup – the victims were not required to make this causal link between exposure and illness. Kenneth Feinberg, who was hired by BP to oversee the claims process, also oversaw those landmark cases. In the case of the World Trade Center, “all people had to show was that they were in the vicinity where the exposure occurred and that they had a medical diagnosis of an illness – not a medical diagnosis of a causal connection, but just a medical diagnosis of an illness and they were able to receive compensation. In the BP disaster, Ken Feinberg turned his back on all of that incredible work, in terms of finding a reasonable way to compensate people who have suffered physically from exposure.”
Scientist Dr. Rikki Ott lived through the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and traveled the Gulf Coast for a year after the BP disaster, researching symptoms in the general public. What she witnessed convinced her that the region is experiencing a public health crisis related to the oil disaster. She has been particularly worried about the combined impact of the crude oil and the chemical dispersant, Corexit, used to break up the BP oil. Ott explains, “Since the 1970s it has been known that the combination of dispersants and crude oil is more toxic to the ecosystem than oil alone.” (A report released today by the Goverment Accountability project backs up that claim.) She says that while underplaying the potential health impacts of the oil and dispersant, the industry acknowledges the extreme toxicity of the dispersant in the preparation given to workers handling the chemicals, “Workers who use Corexit were given 40 hours of training and were required to wear complete protection against these compounds.”
Harden emphasizes that the BP disaster “occurred in an area of the United States that is a sacrifice zone for toxic and industrial hazardous waste facilities and operations.” She has worked with many communities in the Gulf region suffering from exposure to industrial toxins and has seen a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Harden is working regionally with a coalition of advocacy organizations to press “for legal standards that recognize our human rights – to life and health, and our human right to racial equality, in ways that transform this current environmental regulatory system to one that actually incorporates human rights.” Unless that happens, she says, polluting companies will continue to operate “with impunity.”  She concludes by saying, “Unfortunately, with the settlement agreement approved by the court, BP has won round one. But the fight’s not over.

Listen to the full call below, or listen to recordings on other topics related to the BP oil disaster:

Leah Mahan has been working on documentary films since 1988, when her life was changed by an internship with filmmaker Henry Hampton on the Eyes on the Prize series about the civil rights movement.  She has been working on a documentary about the Mississippi Gulf Coast community of Turkey Creek for a dozen years.