As the toll mounts on the Gulf Coast - 100,000 out of work, wildlife dying, fisheries shutting down - cleanup workers are getting sick and health professionals are warning about the long term effects on everyone, including the general population.
Officials at Louisiana's West Jefferson Medical Center say an undetermined number of cleanup workers have been treated there for symptoms that include "irritated skin, nausea, labored breathing and dehydration."
At different times during the crisis so far BP has tried to dismiss reports of illness among cleanup workers as the result of either food poisoning or reactions to excessive heat.
Medical experts, scientists and oil spill clean-up workers, however, tell a different story.
As the spill enters its 79th day cleanup workers are saying they are experiencing headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and problems with memory and concentration. Robert "Tiger" Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, said some workers, and even residents in areas where oil has washed up along the shores, have reported "strange rashes."
Fishermen like David Dixon, a shrimp boat captain in St. Bernard Parish, were put out of business early on in the crisis, as soon as the fishing grounds were shut down. He said he desperately needed work so he immediately took the cleanup job BP offered.
Dixon said he received neither adequate training nor protective gear from BP. "I was driven around on a golf cart and the company rep asked me what I thought should be done about the cleanup. They didn't give out protective gear or have a real plan."
Dixon said that despite his worries regarding long term health effects he is doing the cleanup work because he has no choice.
Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who has been providing technical assistance to environmental groups, unions and other organizations, is among the growing number of professionals challenging BP's contention that there is nothing to worry about. She has spoken out in testimony before Congress, press interviews and on the Internet.
She said fishermen like Dixon were sent out to set up booms against the advancing oil and to pick up absorbent booms that were soaked with hydrocarbons and they lean over the crude oil slick for many hours, coming down with nausea, dizziness and respiratory problems. "They were told if they complained they would be fired," she said.
Signs were posted already two months ago on roads throughout the Louisiana Bayou, warning drivers not to pass certain points because of the presence of "hazardous materials."
"Those signs are up there because the oil soaked booms they bring in onto the docks are dangerous," said Laurie Burgerot, a long-time resident of YsCloskey, La.
Chemist Subra noted that when some of the men were silent about getting sick, their wives started complaining. BP warned several fishermen, she said, that they would be fired if their wives continued to speak out.
Reports of BP supervisors warning workers early on during the crisis not to wear respirators or protective gear because it would make the situation look dangerous have been confirmed by many sources.
Subra says the workers are inhaling "polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, known cancer causing agents that have additional heart and lung impacts. The fishermen are not short-term exposed. We're fearing that they will be sick for the rest of their lives."
If history is any type of guide her warnings should be taken seriously.
Thousands who worked to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 have developed permanent illnesses or have died.
Merle Savage, a general foreman of the cleanup crews in that disaster has been sick for 20 years with heart and lung ailments resulting from exposure to toxins. She recently wrote an "open letter" to Gulf cleanup crews to warn them about risks they might face.
In it she begs the fishermen and other cleanup workers to "not listen to what they are saying. BP is hiding everything they can. Breathing this crude oil is definitely going to be harmful to you. $15 an hour is not worth it. Your life is worth a lot more. Had I known, had someone leaked information or wrote me a letter and told me how toxic the crude oil could be, I never would have ever gone out and cleaned the oil spill because I've had to suffer for 21 years. And it does not get any better."
Photo: Hazmat signs are now posted along Gulf Coast docks. (PW/Blake Deppe)