Unchartered Waters: The Spill and Human Health

Tue Jun. 22, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

Fisherman George Jackson fell ill in May while working to clean up the oil spill for BP. Now he's waiting for approval from his doctor to get back to work.

"My eyes started burning and I started getting dizzy, dizziness and nausea," he said.

According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, more than 100 people have complained about health problems they believe were caused by the oil spill.

"The headaches, the dizziness, the shortness of breath… these are common symptoms we would see around dispersants, common symptoms we would see around the burning of crude or any hydrocarbon for that matter," said Damon Dietrich, a doctor at the West Jefferson Medical Center in Louisiana where seven clean up workers were decontaminated in a hazmat unit before being admitted to the ER.

The health and safety of the more than 20,000 clean up workers is a growing concern, given the amount of oil and the length of time workers are exposed to it. Fresh crude oil contains volatile organic compounds, some of which are known to cause cancer.

How serious are the short- and long-term health risks for clean-up workers? How should they be protected? And who is ultimately in charge of their safety?

Need to Know correspondent Dr. Emily Senay talks to BP, leading scientists and Louisiana state health officials to find answers.

But with little hard science about the long-term health effects on spill workers—and dispersants used in unprecedented quantities—there are more questions than answers.

This piece was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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