Experts: Health Hazards in Gulf Warrant Evacuations

When Louisiana residents ask marine toxicologist and community activist Riki Ott what she would do if she lived in the Gulf with children, she tells them she would leave immediately. “It’s that bad. We need to start talking about who’s going to pay for evacuations.”

In 1989, Ott, who lives in Cordova, Alaska, experienced firsthand the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdex oil disaster. For the past two months, she’s been traveling back and forth between Louisiana and Florida to gather information about what’s really happening and share the lessons she learned about long-term illnesses and deaths of cleanup workers and residents. In late May, she began meeting people in the Gulf with symptoms like headaches, dizziness, sore throats, burning eyes, rashes and blisters that are so deep, they’re leaving scars. People are asking, “What’s happening to me?”

She says the culprit is almost two million gallons of Corexit, the dispersant BP is using to break up and hide the oil below the ocean’s surface. “It’s an industrial solvent. It’s a degreaser. It’s chewing up boat engines off-shore. It’s chewing up dive gear on-shore. Of course, it’s chewing up people’s skin. The doctors are saying the solvents are making the oil worse.”

In a widely watched YouTube video, from Project Gulf Impact, a project that aims to give Gulf residents a voice, Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist and campaigner with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, said Coast Guard planes are flying overhead at night spraying Corexit on the water and on land.

Ott says people who are experiencing discomfort of any kind, especially children, pregnant women, cancer survivors, asthma sufferers and African-Americans because they’re prone to sickle cell anemia, should wear a respirator and see a doctor that specializes in chemical poisoning immediately. She also recommends contacting the detox specialists at The Environmental Health Center in Dallas, Texas. “People don’t have the information to know that the burning sore throat is actually chemical poisoning,” she said. “And this isn’t getting any attention, but it’s very important. There are no vaccinations for chemical poisoning. None.”

Because she’s gotten to know the locals and has done a number of national media interviews, she’s now receiving a barrage of daily phone calls and e-mails from people who are concerned and don’t know where else to turn. She recommends they read this Sciencecorps resource about potential health hazards.

Ott shared these stories on a recent trip to the Bay Area with Diane Wilson, former Texas shrimper turned rabble-rousing activist. Ott was coughing and constantly clearing her throat during our two-hour conversation. “I can still smell the oil,” she said.

Media outlets have been reporting on public health concerns and taking water quality samples, but Ott says they’ve only scratched the surface. “If I were in charge of the media, I would be talking about public safety and public health every day. They should also be exposing the truth about how our federal standards are outdated and no longer protective of public health or worker safety. We knew in 1989 that OSHA had a loophole in it that’s big enough to drive every single sick worker through. It exempts the reporting of colds and flus. That loophole has not been closed since Exxon Valdez.”

Ott expressed her concerns during a May meeting with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Lisa Jackson. “I was sitting across from her. She said, quote, ‘I am walking a fine line between truth and hysteria. We don’t want to create a panic.’ This shows you how much our government is beholden to oil and cannot imagine a future without oil. We the people have got to imagine this. We have to. This is way worse than people think.”

On Tuesday, Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard reported that Hugh Kaufman, a whistleblower who works as a senior policy analyst in the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, is accusing the agency of deliberately downplaying public health threats and its own role in regulating the chemicals being dumped into the Gulf “to protect itself from liability and keep the public from getting too alarmed.”

The cause for alarm can’t be more apparent. In addition to the health problems people are already experiencing, WKRG News 5 reporter, Jessica Taloney, recently collected samples of water and sand from five Alabama beaches and took them to a local lab to be tested.

Bob Naman, a chemist with nearly 30 years of experience, told Taloney that he wouldn’t expect to see more than five parts per million of oil and petroleum in the water. The sample of the water taken in Gulf Shores beach, where adults and kids were swimming and playing, showed 66 parts per million. The sand had 211 parts per million. When Naman began to test the sample collected from Dauphin Island Marina, it exploded. “We think that it mostly likely happened due to the presence of methanol or methane gas or the presence of the dispersant, Corexit.”

“What’s going on in the Gulf is the same cover-up that was going with the 9/11 environmental issue,” the EPA’s Kaufman told Sheppard. “The Bush White House ordered EPA to lie about the environmental and public health situation at the World Trade Center because of economic ramifications. So they did.”

On Democracy Now!, Kaufman accused the EPA of being “sock puppets for BP in this cover-up.”

I called Kaufman to find out if he agrees with Ott’s decision to sound the alarm about evacuations. The short answer? Yes. “If you’re getting sick, it’s because you’re being poisoned,” he said. “Those chemicals can cause cancer 20 years down the line and that’s why Riki Ott is saying some areas have to be evacuated. That’s true. We don’t know how bad it is because the EPA is not doing adequate air testing. They’re taking some measurements so they can tell the public that everything is safe [when, in fact, the public has] an increased risk of getting cancer and dying early. They’re pawns in a money game.”

Kaufman and Ott both say the media needs to follow the money. The reason why the EPA is covering this up, they say, is because the cost to BP would be astronomical. “The dispersants hide the oil,” said Ott. “If you put dispersants in the water, you don’t know how much oil was really spilled. Oil fines are based on how much oil was spilled, so it’s all about money.”

If a group listed as a terrorist organization had caused the oil disaster, Kaufman says their assets would be seized immediately and their members would be arrested. So, why hasn’t the US government seized BP’s assets? Kaufman points to an April Vanity Fair article about Larry Fink, one of the most powerful men on Wall Street. Fink’s BlackRock money-management firm controls or monitors more than $12 trillion worldwide, including a billion shares of BP. According to the article, BlackRock “has effectively become the leading manager of Washington’s bailout of Wall Street,” thanks to Fink’s close relationship with former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

“It’s all about money,” says Kaufman. “Follow the money.”

So, where does this leave the people whose lives have been destroyed by this disaster? Where does this leave the people who will face long-term health problems? Where does this leave our oceans, wildlife and environment? What’s next?

“The more the public knows, the more the media cover it, the more the people tell officials to help, the better it is,” says Kaufman. “It’s a game of momentum.”

Ott says she plans to stay in the area to assist where she can (getting respirators for workers is near the top of her list), get the truth out and continue the conversations and community meetings she’s having with self-described Tea Partiers, evangelicals and fifth and sixth generation fisherman. “Here’s something positive for you,” she said. “I’m starting to hear, ‘We all live on one planet and there really is a climate crisis here. This can’t continue.’ I’m having conversations with the Christian Right. I’m staying in an oilman’s camper. Oilmen are starting to see that we need alternatives. I’m having tea party people come up to me and say, ‘How can I help?’ Corporations want to divide the nation into red and blue, Democrat and Republican. I’m seeing that crashing down. The frames are dissolving. The South is rising. I’m talking about the Deep South. This is the most hopeful sign I’m seeing.”

Former shrimper, Diane Wilson, hopes to see more direct action. “This is a crisis. If this oil gusher does not move people to force a change in Washington, then it will never happen. We are seeing the end of the United States as we know it. If people hold their planet dear, they better be out there. Folks are too well behaved. We need to be unreasonable”.

  • This article was first published on
  • Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco, and author of Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland. Read other articles by Rose.

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    1. Don Hawkins said on July 27th, 2010 at 1:04am #

      Citizens wouldn’t support an approach they couldn’t understand to solve a problem our leaders refused to acknowledge. Even the earth’s flagging ability to support life as we know it couldn’t stir a public outcry. The loudest voices insisted that leaders in Washington do nothing.

      They obliged. Time dot com

      Cold hearted orb
      That rules the night
      Removes the colours
      From our sight
      Red is gray and
      Yellow white
      But we decide
      Which is right
      Which is an Illusion

      The minds in the military in the US in the first part of the twenty first century are not what they used to be. Up and down the line the system is taking it’s toll the human mind for most of us the little voice in the back of our head say’s no the system say’s yes. It must be ok they say so but something is not correct what could it be?

      A problem our leaders refused to acknowledge that’s so called leaders who very soon will go home and rest. Life on Earth best guess started about 3.5 billion years ago and how about us human’s how long have we been walking around on Earth well in geologic time about half a blink of an eye mates. Heck let’s forget about the last say 10k years and just look at the last one hundred years. Did we learn to live with one another boy’s and girl’s of all color and race? Sort of but we didn’t like it that much of course the way we look at one another and say am better than you could have something to do with it. Add Capitalism to the mix hello in a mad world only the mad are sane. Now even the earth’s flagging ability to support life as we know it couldn’t stir a public outcry of course the earth’s flagging ability to support life is kind of hidden from view and the reason is well we might have to go back to am better than you which is an Illusion granted a relentless illusion by a few. So a human goes off to war from the greatest nation on Earth boy’s and girl’s and in the first part of the twenty first century going off a lot to keep the American way going and going and see’s what they see then comes back to what? Could of course write a few thousand words here but here’s just a few Goldman Sacks, Wall Street, pill’s the legal kind, compound interest, Wal Mart, bridges, detox centers, prison, the club, movie stars on drugs the legal kind I need my pill’s, well dressed fool’s, I should stop now and let’s remember even the earth’s flagging ability to support life as we know it couldn’t stir a public outcry and now that we know our so called leaders are going to do nothing well not exactly nothing to me it’s kind of like lawyer talk ever see the movie changing lanes? So is is or it is what it isn’t or it is what it is. But we decide which is right and which is an Illusion and last that guy Tony Hayward from BP fame remember the day he was walking down the beach in the Gulf not once did he stop and maybe pick up a shovel and clean some oil of course he had his people with him did they clean oil, no then the boss who run’s the crew that cleans the oil does he clean the oil well no he get’s to ride around in a four wheeler. Did we learn to live with one another boy’s and girl’s of all color and race? Am better than you in half a blink of an eye. It’s going to be 101 degrees where I live tomorrow rather warm well we had July temperatures at the end of May wait don’t tell me it is what it isn’t.

    2. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 27th, 2010 at 4:14am #

      Don,I agree with what you say,but I refuse to blame all humanity.No matter how many other faults they might have had,the indigenous people of the New Worlds exterminated by European imperialists worshipped the earth as their Mother. They lived sufficiently, and soon learned not to over-exploit,to always leave enough set aside so that animal numbers would not collapse. They revered the animals they harvested, offering up prayers to their spirits. They saw themselves as like the animals, just little pieces in the great patchwork of life, and they saw their lives,not as egotistic exercises in self-aggrandisement and death denial, but as part of a continuum that went on forever.
      Unfortunately,a few thousand years ago, somewhere in the Middle East, a totalitarian cult of human infallibility and omniscience came into being. The Jews adopted it as their creed, adding the interesting twist that they were the supreme creation in the universe.Of course, we would say today that this is just a vulgar psychopathy, a type of ego projection-Man created God in His image. It ended matriarchy,reduced women to chattels, and set up a pitiless antipathy to outsiders as a central tenet of the fate. The repeated admonitions to genocide,massacre and horrific punishment for minor infractions that make up much of the Torah/Old Testament are the work of people clearly electrified by hatred of others.
      This noxious psychology has been passed on directly to Christianity and Islam. Not,of course,that all adherents,or all schools of these transmissable dementias are characterised by the pure essence of hatred of the Other, but the fundamentalists, so powerful in all these faiths, certainly are so. That explains the curious barbarism of Israeli society under the zealots,of the worst aspects of the Iranian theocracy,of the atavistic Saudi regime and of the ‘dominionist’ and ‘Christian Zionist’ wings of US politics.
      However, the most poisonous legacy of the patriarchal God-botherers appears to have turned out to be the commandment to ‘subdue the earth’. From that folly has arisen the entire edifice of market capitalism,that has now achieved the end-stage of that destruction of the natural world that Marx had premonitions of in his idea of the ‘metabolic rift’. In market capitalism all that matters is ego-satisfaction,getting the better of others,dominating and,most crucially,getting richer. Of course it would be crass and stating the bleeding obvious to observe that capitalist greed is a manifestation of spiritual impoverishment and cachexia and is,hence, as we know,insatiable. The more you accumulate, the tinier shrivels your soul,the more you need to possess.
      In capitalism all collective action is, by definition,anathema because other people are enemies, competitors or property. The capitalist have been warned,first by philosophers,then by scientists, that greed is destructive,but they will not listen because they can not listen. Any capitalist who develops a social conscience is quickly replaced by another,more sturdy,psychopath,and hence capitalism has been evolving into ever more extreme and wretched manifestations.Take your pick-crony capitalism,military-industrial capitalism,narco-capitalism,disaster capitalism-for every human psychopathology there is a capitalism that suits your tastes. But behind them all sits the capitalist the man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. It is a system that prefers the psychopath, with his inherent advantages of lack of human empathy,indifference to the fate of others,narcissistic egomania and total unscrupulousness in pursuit of personal advantage. This type, which dominates politics,business and the media,were always causing human and ecological disasters, but now,finally but inevitably, their greed has led to the final stage where human arrogance and greed run headlong into the realities of ecology, and we know who will come out on top in that conflagration.

    3. mary said on July 27th, 2010 at 5:35am #

      ‘….adding the interesting twist that they were the supreme creation in the universe….’

      I don’t know if this is for real or photoshopped.


    4. Don Hawkins said on July 27th, 2010 at 6:55am #

      I see Greenpeace in London about forty BP stations shut them down, good one. That Greenpeace is a tuff bunch. I read BP’s response to the shut down, but BP said the protesters had interfered with safety systems that allowed emergency services to switch off power to the pumps. “To interfere with them is just childish and irresponsible,” a spokesman said. Need I say more now Greenpeace is a smart tuff bunch and they know cap and trade is a joke on the human race. I wonder could we fund Greenpeace in a big way for a little get together Capital one voice loud and clear. This has to start somehow and will take a lot of us. On Fox Beck is such a clever little rat. He always’ comes back to one main point energy and calls people who want to try hippies he does put some truth in what he say’s but why it is happening I have never seen on his blackboards. I only bring up Beck because there are many more who are not what they seem. Could it work we all fund Greenpeace it will take a lot of us.

    5. Don Hawkins said on July 27th, 2010 at 12:15pm #

      The air temperature rose to 37.2 degrees Celsius above zero, to break the absolute record.

      It will take a lot of us and easy no but boring it will not be.

    6. Don Hawkins said on July 27th, 2010 at 12:40pm #

      Just talked with Greenpeace in DC and sending them a letter today with a proposal for a little get together Capital one voice loud and clear. Can it work I don’t know let’s see.