HOPEDALE, La. (CN) – The Coast Guard pulled all 125 commercial fishing boats from oil cleanup efforts in Breton Sound off the Louisiana coast Wednesday after several cleanup workers complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches and chest pain. Seven workers remained in the hospital Thursday.
A hospital spokeswoman told The Associated Press that doctors believe the cause of illness may be chemical irritation and dehydration from long hours working in the heat.
The Coast Guard saw to it that all crew members from the 125 fishing boats were evaluated by medical workers as a precaution.
West Jefferson Medical Center spokeswoman Taslin Alphonso said the workers told doctors that they believe chemicals used to break up the oil made them sick.
Eleven people died in the April 20 explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. Oil has since gushed from a broken well deep on the Gulf floor at unprecedented rates, threatening to cause widespread devastation to coastal zones along the Gulf Coast. More than 100 miles of Louisiana’s fragile coastal marshlands are already covered in oil. Fishermen, including those working off Breton Sound in St. Bernard Parish, La., have taken emergency cleanup work with BP in an effort to block the oil coming in and to stop it before it destroys marine life along the coast.
Dispersants, or chemicals used to break up oil, are sprayed on an oil slick to break it up into smaller blobs so it will sink and biodegrade more quickly. Coastal fishermen have been critical of BP’s use of chemical dispersants from day one, citing fears that the toxicity of chemicals in the dispersants and their effects on marine life, wildlife, the environment and humans will trump the disaster of the millions of gallons of crude oil spilled.
Joe Favalora, 74, a recreational fisherman in St. Tammany Parish has insisted that the government needs to ban dispersants.
“What? You want it to be like with Agent Orange?” he said, fishing for bait May 5 at Dead Man’s Lake. “My grandchildren’s children will have three arms? Two heads?”
Favalora joked that the government should stop spraying dispersants and wait to see if a hurricane could just lift the crude out of the Gulf.
“They’ll poison all of it,” he said, turning serious again. “The fish will be sick and won’t come back.”
The chemical dispersants used by BP to break up the oil — two varieties under the brand name Corexit — are banned in the United Kingdom for environmental concerns.
Corexit is made by an Illinois-based company called Nalco. According to last week’s figures from the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, the unified command office set up to deal with the spill, approximately 600,000 gallons of dispersant had been sprayed over the spill site from the air.
Coastal fishermen expressed frustration at BP this week when it failed observe an order by the Environmental Protection Agency to stop using the Corexit dispersants and find a less harmful substitute by last Sunday night.
As of Monday, when BP was still using the dispersant, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said BP can continue to use the dispersant, but asked BP to reduce the amount it uses, saying she believed BP could reduce the amount by as much as 80 percent.
Environmental experts warn that dispersants are bad news for the environment and could add to the ecological disaster in the Gulf rather than alleviate it.
Richard Charter, government relations consultant for Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund told Mother Jones last week that oil companies “want to make the visible part of the oil spill disappear — for political reasons, limiting the liability to the spillers.” But, Charter says, “If we were looking at food chain impacts and biomagnifications in the marine ecosystem, we probably never would have invented Corexit.”
Oil companies designed dispersants to reduce the amount of oil washing up on land. That might spare BP the public relations nightmare of oil-coated birds washing up on Louisiana’s shorelines, but scientists say Corexit and the like will simply push the problem underwater.
The chemicals, marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott says, have “the potential to cause intergenerational harm” to marine life.
Defending her decision to let BP continue using Corexit, though in lesser quantities, Jackson told reporters that she is “amazed by how little science there is on the issue” of dispersants, and that “logistics and stockpiles and the ability for the responsible party to pull the materials together” were a likely factor in BP’s decision to rely on Corexit.
In 1994 Corexit maker Nalco and Exxon’s chemical division, Exxon Chemical Co., formed a joint venture that focused on oil and gas products like the dispersants in use in the Gulf now, according to Greenwire. Nalco bought out Exxon’s share in 2001, but kept its strong oil industry ties. One Nalco board member, Rodney Chase, worked for BP for 38 years.
Nalco spokesman Charles Pajor says that former oil industry officials are “not by any means a majority” of the company’s corporate leadership, and that BP’s decision to invest so heavily in the chemical is “a matter of them making a choice of what they’ve had experience using in the past and feel that it works for them.”