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Gina Solomon’s Blog

Sick Fishermen and Oily Smells on the Gulf Coast

Gina Solomon

Posted May 18, 2010

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Yesterday in Venice, Louisiana, fishermen and local residents called a press conference to talk about the air. People complained of the oily smells when the wind is blowing off the water, and listed symptoms including headaches, nosebleeds, asthma attacks, cough, nausea, and vomiting. Those who had been out on the water said it was even worse out there.

I'm not surprised -- I smelled it too. The smell that intermittently invades Venice and other locations along the Gulf Coast has a hint of creosote, but also the sickly smell of diesel fuel. It made my stomach turn, and I am not particularly sensitive to these things. It's clear that there's something in the air; the question is - is it harmful?

I went out late last week with an air monitoring device to look for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and benzene. It seemed reasonable to start with VOCs, especially benzene, because they are among the most toxic compounds that could be coming from the oil. I have blogged previously on the health effects of these chemicals.

Photos taken by NRDC, click for captions and more photos

During the two days I had the instrument, I only noticed the smell of oil once - when I was on a boat in Main Pass off the coast of Venice, with the wind blowing out of the south. The smell was intermittent, but the striking thing was that with each puff of odor the instrument detected an elevation in VOCs. The boat's engine had been off for more than five minutes and there was no other boat in sight. The chemicals were almost certainly coming off the oil.

The VOC levels that I measured were not terribly high - just a few parts-per-million - but the chemicals were clearly present in the air, despite the fact that there was no oily sheen visible on the water, and we were miles away from the spill. Unfortunately, the instrument malfunctioned, so I don't know if there was benzene in the air. The detectable VOC levels really made me worry about what things are like further out on the water where the fishermen are dragging boom and working to clean up the oil.


While I was in Venice earlier this month I explained some of the health concerns associated with oil and dispersants to local fishermen participating in the cleanup and demonstrated proper safety gear to protect themselves. Find out more in this video from that discussion above.

Thirteen fishermen asked us for respirators yesterday. They certainly didn't get any from BP. Instead, BP officials told the fishermen that the air quality is fine out where they are working to clean up the oil, but they won't release their data on air quality. Without the data, I can't verify if it's safe or not.

It's long past time for OSHA to step in to make BP release their data - or for the federal government to do independent measurements of air quality and release it to the public. People's noses aren't lying, and increasing numbers of fishermen and local residents are feeling ill. Something is in the air, and we need to know what it is.

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Judie GuerrieroMay 19 2010 09:03 PM

Good Job Gina!

Glen DanzigMay 20 2010 02:56 AM

Was tuning my sat dish and picked up 'The micro effect radio show' and there is a scientist on there who said they have backup plans to evacuate Florida and eventually the East coast now that the oil is in the loop currents. The slick is releasing huge amounts of Benzene. Benzene will flat out kill ya!! Don't go down there, stay away!!!!
He said they are all lying- Gov, BP, Media etc. We are screwed!!!!

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHMay 20 2010 07:23 PM

Thanks for the comment. I would be really surprised if there's any need to evacuate, especially not an entire State! I've been scrutinizing the EPA air monitoring data so far, and the levels of air pollution on land are variable, but mostly are staying pretty low. I'll do a longer blog on this soon. So we're not in a situation where people need to stay away, or where people need to evacuate. But we definitely do need to be watchful, and we need to protect the people who are most exposed (the fishermen) and those who are most susceptible (pregnant women and people with lung diseases who live along the coastline). It's a changing situation, but so far, there's no need to push the panic button.

Eddie GustafsonMay 21 2010 01:43 AM

People are getting sick cause it's bad for them to be so up close to the fumes and they're being told they don't need protection by BP. That's criminal and deserves some serious attention and investigation.

Here are the facts:

"Can an oil spill affect human health?

* Yes. Volatile components (the strong smell that you feel from oil products is due to such gases that evaporate) of oil can burn eyes, burn skin, irritate or damage sensitive membranes in the nose, eyes and mouth. Hydrocarbons can trigger pneumonia if it enters the lungs. Benzene and other light hydrocarbon can damage red bloods cells, suppress immune systems, strain the liver, spleen and kidneys. Generally, refined products tend to be more toxic, but people who clean up shorelines from oil spills must protect themselves from inhaling these gases also when it is a matter of crude oil. Some of the light fractions of oil, such as the aromatic components (e.g., benzene), are also known to cause cancer and are very toxic to humans."


"We know that Exxon Valdez cleanup workers faced average oil mist exposure that was 12 times higher than government-approved limits, and those who washed the beach with hot water experienced a maximum exposure 400 times higher than these limits. Many of those workers suffered subsequent health problems and in 1989, 1,811 workers filed compensation claims, primarily for respiratory system damage, according to National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. The cleanup efforts in Louisiana's coastal marshes may look very different, but cleaners can also face heavy exposure to oil mist. In fact, some are reporting that EPA studies now show that airborne levels of dangerous chemical compounds from the oil far exceed pre-determined safety standards."

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