Our guest blogger is Ellen-Marie Whelan, a Senior Health Policy Analyst and Associate Director of Health Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Whelan and Lesley Russell, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, are the co-authors of the new report “The Oil Disaster Is a Health Disaster, Too: How to Protect Public Health in the Aftermath of Major Disasters.”
All hands are on deck to stop the oil gushing out of the Gulf of Mexico and clean up the millions of gallons of oil that now pollute it. Eleven workers lost their lives in the explosion of rig. In addition to this horrible loss of life, there may an additional, emerging public health emergency from this disaster that must not be overlooked.
Many of the human health problems evolving from the BP oil disaster are insidious and unknown. The effects of the oil are the most pressing and most obvious. This is mostly a risk for those living near the coast, and workers cleaning up oil as it washes ashore. But the effects from exposure to the dispersants BP is using to “clean up” oil also pose a serious health threat. In fact, some believe the chemical toxicity of what’s in the dispersant could be more dangerous than the oil itself.
BP claims that the dispersants are safe but we don’t actually know all the chemical components in the dispersants or their long-term effects since their exact makeup is kept secret under competitive trade laws. Worse still, the New York Times reported that BP chose to use dispersants manufactured by a company with which it shares close ties, “even though other U.S. EPA-approved alternatives have been shown to be far less toxic and, in some cases, nearly twice as effective.” And with this disaster, for the first time ever, the EPA has authorized BP to use these dispersants underwater, at the source of the leak.
And who is charged with protecting the public’s health?
Well, the EPA is ramping up. In a surprising – and welcome – twist to the unfolding disaster in the Gulf Coast, the EPA just informed BP that they have 24 hours to choose a less toxic form of chemical dispersants to break up its oil spill. BP must then use the new dispersants both on the surface and underwater within 72 hours after the EPA approves of the new chemicals.
It is good sign that the EPA has mandated the use of less toxic chemicals – but this is also after 600,000 gallons have already been used in the Gulf and the leak has been going on for over 4 weeks. This is why we must take the opportunity to learn from how we have handled (or mishandled) public health emergencies in the past. In each of the following cases, there was no – and remains no – Federal entity in place at the beginning of the developing public health crisis to monitor potential health risks.
The most obvious comparison to the burgeoning BP crisis is the response that was mounted after the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. Eleven million gallons of oil emptied from the tanker, exposing cleanup workers to oil mist that was much higher than government-approved limits. Thousand of workers came down with “the Valdez Crud,” a condition that caused respiratory problems and flu-like symptoms. Though most of these were dismissed as simple cases of colds and seasonal flu, many of the exposed workers developed much more severe complications. Unfortunately, there were not proper monitoring entities in place to track this development.
The public health response after the World Trade Center attacks was haphazard and did not adequately address health problems for the first responders and people working at Ground Zero. No one could predict the health effects from exposure to the dust and debris from the towers’ destruction. Yet there was no Federal infrastructure in place to monitor the unfolding symptoms of the first responders, clean-up crews and NYC residents experienced. What followed were numerous hearings, studies, and pieces of legislation to mount the proper federal response. And many still wonder if we’ve done enough.
We were also worried at the onset of Hurricane Katrina about potential health problems that might arise from the flood waters, yet the federal government left this public health monitoring up to the local governments that were more focused on rebuilding their communities. Despite the lessons from these very real public health emergencies, we are now facing what some are calling the worst-ever ecological disaster without an appropriate public health response in place.
President Obama plans to soon appoint an independent commission to investigate the BP oil disaster soon. In addition to determining the cause and responsibility for this calamity, the commission must also assess the health impacts posed by the oil gusher and efforts to stop it. And BP, Transocean, and Halliburton must be held morally and financially responsible for the pain and suffering of people exposed to the oil or dispersants.