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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

A Year After the Disaster: Curious|and Debilitating Illnesses Abound

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - One year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Gulf Coast residents are reporting a litany of debilitating illnesses, including tumors, anemia, brain lesions, tremors and seizures - but it's not getting much attention from the media, and many doctors don't seem to know how to deal with it.

One overworked Louisiana doctor who treats such patients, Michael Robichaux, says the chemicals released by the oil rig explosion included virulent poisons.

"They were interviewing Admiral Thad Allen a while back and they asked him, 'What are they using as antifreezes in [the riser pipe connecting the Deepwater Horizon to the Macondo oil well]?' - this was after the spill was over - and he said, 'We're using methanol and ethylene glycol.'

"Well, I jumped up and down and cut some flips because ethylene glycol is antifreeze, OK? And if you live in Raceland, Louisiana and want to get rid of your neighbor's dog that's digging in your flower bed, you take a weenie over there and put a little antifreeze on it, and he's gone.

"Methanol is wood alcohol. Ten cc's blinds you. Thirty cc's kills you, OK? Now, they're talking hundreds of thousands of gallons. They use the hundreds of thousands of gallons in the riser pipe to keep it from freezing."

When such a pipe bursts, as it did aboard the Deepwater Horizon 1 year ago today, hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals joined the petroleum products that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Robichaux, affectionately called Dr. Mike by his many admirers, has an easy Southern-gentry way of telling a story. Courthouse News interviewed him for this report, but his quoted remarks are taken from a video of his address to the Baton Rouge Press Club in March.

In the video, Robichaux, of Raceland, in Lafourche Parish, wears a dress shirt and tie covered in Looney Tunes characters. He looks exhausted. That doesn't mask the passion the 65-year-old ear, nose and throat specialist and former state senator feels for the work he is doing. And the fatigue does not mask his anger.

"Freddie's blind - we know what methanol does," Dr. Robichaux said.

Freddie Lambert, a former offshore worker and a patient of Robichaux's, was splashed in the face with oil dispersant last year and is blind.

"I've seen patient after patient who is violently ill," Robichaux says in the video.

He says his patients suffer from a variety of ailments. What they have in common is that they all live or work along the Gulf Coast and all have become sick since the oil spill.

The illnesses have psychological ramifications too, Robichaux said. Patients become confused; some lose their memory.

"A lot of the treatment has got to be psychological," Robichaux says.

Al-Jazeera has been reporting on illnesses along the Gulf Coast for months. But in the United States, reports of the widespread illnesses have delivered for the most part via YouTube videos and Facebook postings.

It feels like walking into a science fiction novel Tuesday, in the musty corridors of the Hilton Riverside Hotel in downtown New Orleans, where Robichaux and his patients - on this day, three seriously ill Gulf Coast residents -turned out for a symposium marking the first year anniversary of the BP oil spill.


Among the patients is Paul Doom, 22, a 6-foot 6-inch former Marine who is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

Doom's family home in Navarre, Fla. is 700 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. Doom said on Tuesday that it may not have been the swimming that did him in, but the everyday living and playing along the shore of toxic water.

Doom began suffering intense headaches and internal bleeding in June last year. Then he had seizures and a stroke. Now he is confined to a wheelchair.

Dr. Robichaux said that, as with all of the patients he is seeing, Doom's doctors at first denied any connection between Doom's ailments and his exposure to oil. Doom said some of his doctors told him that urinating blood for weeks was normal.

Doom said a marine scientist told him that the lesions on his brain are similar to lesions on the hundreds of fish that turned up sick in the Gulf of Mexico, as they did after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.

"My whole family is toxic," Doom said.

Because Robichaux is an ear, nose and throat specialist, he said, he does not rely on the blood tests for toxicity other doctors do. Robichaux said he treats his patients "down the line." If he sees a patient is showing signs of diabetes, for instance, he treats diabetes, and hopes to conquer the whole illness slowly from that approach.

The blood tests he eschews look for organic compounds and solvents such as those found in hydrocarbons and dispersants. Only one or two practicing doctors in the United States perform tests for solvents, Robichaux says. No one knows how to treat a patient testing high for solvents. Medical insurance doesn't pay for blood work or treatment of oil-related illnesses.

Doom said the most basic blood test costs $300. A more elaborate test costs $800.

Doom believes everyone along the Gulf Coast is susceptible to the same illnesses he has, and that perhaps his is just at a more advanced stage.

"There is discrimination against the poor, the sick, and the handicapped," said John Gooding, a resident of Pass Christian, Miss. Like Doom, Gooding's family home is close to the Gulf of Mexico.

The poor, the sick, the handicapped are all in the same category, Gooding said. Health insurance doesn't cover oil spill-related sicknesses, so even the well-off can become poor battling illness.

Gooding owns a cabinetmaking business. Business fell off during the oil spill and never recovered. Along the way, Gooding lost his health insurance.

Gooding's said his symptoms are ever-increasing, and include muscular tremors, lung ailments and tumors in his esophagus.

Last week, Gooding buried his dog after her uterus fell out during a premature stillbirth.

A report published this week on a staff blog from the federal Natural Resources Defense Council stated, "For mammals, the most immediate danger from the Macondo well spill was from oiling and inhaling toxic fumes, which can cause brain lesions, disorientation and death. Going forward, the mechanisms of harm are subtler. As we have seen from the Exxon Valdez, oil can work up the food chain, accumulate in body tissue, induce cascade effects across the ecosystem, and impact wildlife populations for decades afterwards."

The report adds that more than 300 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead, nearly half of them stillborn. Scientists estimate that every one whale or dolphin body recovered equals 50 unseen.

Charles Taylor, of Bay St. Louis, Miss., said he was forced to quit his job because he is so sick.

Like Doom and Gooding, Taylor suffers an array or symptoms, including lesions, tumors, lung ailments, abdominal pain, passing blood and an inability to stop bleeding.

One of the many physiological effects of the dispersant Corexit can be hemolytic anemia, the rapid destruction of red blood cells. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath and headache, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, abdominal pain, passing blood, seizures and kidney failure.

Taylor is angry that when sea turtles wash up along his beach, no one comes to collect them. He said scientists come and spray paint them and leave them to rot on the sand.

He said thick green algae have turned the water green. The algae come to the shore and dry into layers of massive brown strips, "like lasagna."

Taylor takes out his camera to show the sea turtles and algae. He has photos of Gooding's dog's uterus and the stillborn puppy, hard and fire-red and utterly unrecognizable.

Then he shows photos to show that even branches of trees have grown tumors. The magnolia leaves are full of holes and blisters.

"People are realizing, but not enough people," he says.

He said it kills him to see people swimming in the water with their kids.

Residents along the coast repeatedly report that airplanes spraying Corexit fly along the coast at dusk, spraying to keep the oil from rising. The Corexit is far more toxic than the oil.

BP and government officials deny that this is happening.

As of this week, all areas of the Gulf have reopened for fishing, including the area right around the Macondo well.

Late in 2010, the federal government announced that the military will serve Gulf seafood to U.S. troops three meals a day to keep up demand.

"The truth is, our military is eating the seafood that our dolphins and turtles can't eat," Taylor said.

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