BP Oil Spill Places Workers at Risk, Solomon Tells US Congress

Dr. Solomon at the June 10th Hearing on the Oil Spill

In June, COEH member Gina Solomon was one of three scientists to provide testimony to the US Congress Sub-committee on Energy and Environment on the health and environmental effects of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill. Solomon told Congress her main health concerns were air quality for workers and communities, the toxicity of direct skin contact with the oil and seafood contamination. She also emphasized that workers hired to clean the spill face the greatest health risks.

In her testimony, Solomon cited a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that estimates up to 70% of the oil that bubbles to the ocean's surface evaporates into vapor, dispersing harmful chemicals into the air.1 Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds contained in crude oil may exert acute and long-term health impacts.2 Workers in close contact with the oil can experience nausea, respiratory symptoms, headaches and dizziness. But these chemicals are also associated with neurologic and reproductive illnesses, and cancer.3

Through July 24, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported 324 health complaints at medical facilities attributable to pollution exposures from the oil spill, reports Solomon. Of those, 74% were from workers. Over 120 workers sought care in emergency departments and 17 workers were hospitalized for exposure inhalation.

Since the explosion on April 20th, Solomon's frequent posts on the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) blog Switchboard have presented an independent view to help the public sort through numerous conflicting media stories about the spill. She analyzes the latest scientific data on topics ranging from chemical dispersants to seafood safety. The latter issue will remain a focus over the coming months as more fisheries open.

For example, Solomon has pointed to flaws in the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) risk assessment of 'acceptable' levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in seafood. “They assumed people eat about 0.4 ounces of shrimp per serving, which is about one shrimp,” said Solomon. “They also assumed the average body weight of people eating Gulf seafood was 80 kilograms or 178 pounds.” She questions whether this weight estimate is high for a population of concern that includes women and children.

“They also assume that the risk will linger for only 5 years,” said Solomon.” But research studies have shown PAH contamination after the Exxon Valdez disaster lingering in oysters for at least 8 years.”

Based on limited data so far, Solomon says there is no clear evidence of a problem, and most consumers need not worry. “Obviously the advice is different for people eating fish in areas of contamination and eating locally caught fish, shrimp, crab and oysters.”

The unprecedented use of dispersants to break down oil into smaller particles leaves more questions unanswered about environmental health risks in the Gulf. Dispersants help protect the marshlands and the birds to some degree, Solomon says, but they may help drive the oil beneath the surface and break it up into smaller particles that may be a greater hazard to fish and other wildlife.

“Dispersed oil particles are in the range of 10 microns,” said Solomon, “which is a range that can be absorbed in fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates. In 1995, NAS concluded there was a hypothetical possibility that dispersants could increase the uptake of oil into the food chain. Still, it's an issue we don't have a lot of data on.”

Solomon and her team, which includes UC Berkeley Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) graduate Miriam Rotkin-Ellman and current EHS student Kathleen Navarro, have been downloading US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air quality data every week ― analyzing the numbers and talking to EPA staff. She's expecting air quality to improve now that the oil leak is plugged. “The data so far are fairly reassuring,” said Solomon. “We don't see high levels of the volatile organics, hydrogen sulfide or naphthalene in the air, which are the chemicals I was most concerned about.”

The offshore data are slightly less reassuring. “There are elevated benzene levels in some of the near shore and offshore areas where people are working on the clean-up effort.” She's found that BP's air monitoring data indicates some elevated levels that exceed National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards for an 8-hour work day. OSHA has been fairly responsive, reports Solomon, and a multi-agency effort also involving NIOSH and NIEHS has made important progress in protecting worker health and safety in the Gulf.

There is a need for follow-up studies of Gulf workers and residents to look for near- and long-term health effects from the spill, added Solomon. She is currently providing input to the researchers at NIEHS who are designing a study plan.

A senior scientist at NRDC and co-director of the UCSF Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency Program, Solomon is in high demand by the media and by Congress. She also presented testimony to Congress in February and March of 2010; first on the problem of endocrine disrupting chemicals in US drinking water, and second, the role environmental hazards play in children's health.

1,2,3 Testimony of Gina M. Solomon, MD, MPH, June 10, 2010, Before the US Congress Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment at the Hearing, “The BP Oil Spill: Human Exposure and Environmental Fate.”

Solomon GM, Janssen S. Health Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill. JAMA 2010 Sep;304(10):1118-1119. [link]

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