Gulf maritime responders suffer flu-like symptoms, mental anguish

Since the second week of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, workers hired by BP Plc. have experienced flu-like symptoms after performing oil-spill cleanup and recovery tasks in the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) said those reporting medical complaints had been performing tasks such as busting sheen, conducting offshore work, burning oil, deploying boom and other cleanup duties.

“Symptoms we have seen over the last couple of weeks are mild, and have included respiratory conditions such as throat irritation, difficulty breathing and cough and gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea and vomiting,” said Olivia Watkins, a DHH spokeswoman.

Most workers, many of whom are out-of-work boat captains, who complained of ailments after inhaling fumes from oil or chemical dispersants quickly felt better after treatment.

As of July 10, the DHH Office of Public Health reported 227 cases of exposure-related illness; 193 of those involved workers participating in cleanup efforts or on oil rigs, and 34 were from the general population. Seventeen individuals had short hospital stays, generally one day in length.

“Most of the hospitalizations have been for nausea, vomiting and flu-like symptoms,” Watkins said.

Nalco Co.’s COREXIT 9500 and 9527 are the dispersants being used on the oil spill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the dispersant begins to break down within 16 days once it is applied to an oil slick. Human exposure is most likely to occur during transportation and handling and application of the dispersants. Repeated and prolonged exposure can lead to respiratory, nasal and eye irritation.

Repeated or excessive exposure to 2-butoxyethanol, a major component of COREXIT 9527, may depress central nervous system functions and cause nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects, and injury to red blood cells, kidneys or liver. To reduce exposure levels, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strongly advises that cleanup workers wear protective clothing when using chemical dispersants (overalls such as Tyvek jumpsuits, chemical-proof boots and gloves and chemical splash goggles).

The EPA recommends using a half-face filter mask or an air-supplied breathing apparatus to protect the nose, throat and lungs. As of July, crews at the well site and conducting controlled burns are provided respirators as a precaution. Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the EPA conduct regular air sampling over the spill.

Cleanup workers are required to attend free training classes based on the job to be performed and the level of oil exposure expected. Watkins said DHH advises workers to follow federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.

Along with physical ailments, the oil spill may cause psychological detriment to those who rely upon Gulf waters for their livelihood. Some watermen may become prone to mental illness as they face the loss of jobs and, more importantly, their way of life.

Mariners and their spouses already have needed counseling, said Michele M. Many, assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Department of Psychiatry and a licensed clinical social worker.

Many said she is witnessing a range of emotions, including “anger, concern for family, anxiety, stress and fear of the unknown. … From a clinical standpoint, those in affected areas are in a hyper-aroused state. They are putting all of their energies into the cleanup, trying to do what they can. It’s the one thing they can control to minimize the impact.”

During her counseling sessions, Many includes “teaching coping skills, self-care and relaxation techniques and simply allowing them to ventilate.”

She said mental-health professionals are following lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster and Hurricane Katrina.

“Since there are now limited resources, a once tight community may become vulnerable to in-fighting, as evidenced in Prince William Sound after the Valdez spill,” Many said. “By building on the strengths of the community and emphasizing positive mutual support, we hope to counterbalance that phenomenon.”

When that time comes, it will be imperative to have adequate mental health resources available.

“As the full effects of the spill hit and the extent of the impact becomes known, the emotional mitigation the mariners have been employing while working on the cleanup may no longer serve as a coping mechanism,” Many said.

Susan Abbotts

By Professional Mariner Staff