How Dangerous is the Gulf Oil Spill to Clean Up Crews?

In the face of yet another Katrina-sized disaster, oil clean up duty will employ more workers than the U.S. Census effort.  The cost of this spill in environmental damage, human misery and loss of habitat is beyond imagination

And since we take care of injured workers, do we have any idea what the hazards are for this new and expanding work force?  Is it dangerous for them, or only for the ducks? 

A little background: this is oil straight out of the ground, not your average quart of Pennzoil.  By the time it reaches the beaches, this oil has changed, it’s been cooked in the sun, agitated by the waves, and mixed with chemical dispersants. 

This results in a complex stew of hydrocarbons.  But before that happens, the smallest chain hydrocarbons, which are volatile, evaporate from the oil pretty quickly after coming to the surface of the gulf.  That’s good, because these are chemicals we usually call industrial solvents; like benzene and toluene, which are known neurotoxins and very carcinogenic.

That said, these chemicals are potentially a hazard to boat-based clean-up workers near the spill, but are long gone by the time the oil reaches land.  That leaves the heavier hydrocarbons that form the thick tarry mess you see on TV.  Think dirty axel grease. 

So what about the EPA’s concern about chemical dispersants

The dispersants are fancy names for soap; like dish soap at home.  The soap makes the grease in the bottom of the pan dissolve.   This works by breaking down the grease into tiny droplets that the soap keeps dissolved in the water.  The grease didn’t go anywhere, it is just less concentrated.  That is good, according to the theory, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” (I quote my old German organic chemistry professor).  You probably know detergents come in green, and not-so-green.  So the detergents aren’t so toxic to us, but some have long-term environmental problems. 

So, the biggest heath problem then, for land-based clean up workers, is heat exhaustion.

Protective suits are hot, and Louisiana gets pretty steamy this time of year. The sludge on the beach is a mess of the nth degree, but not particularly dangerous if you don’t eat it and you’re not a duck.

And what if you fall in it, roll around a bit and get totally coated – while naked – like the birds we see on TV?  No worries. Despite 007 lore ie: Goldfinger, we breathe through our nose and mouth, not our skin, so you’ll survive.  The birds do worse because their feathers don’t work anymore – they can’t fly, float or stay warm. 

So why is everybody decked out in white suits?  It’s the World Trade Center Phenomenon: nobody thought working in a giant pile of rubble was particularly dangerous either, until later when many of the workers developed severe lung disease.  So some prudence is warranted. 

So, if in these times of scarce employment, you consider oil spill clean up duty; do it on land, stay well hydrated, and stay protected from the sun and you should be just fine.

You can see photos of the gulf oil spill cleanup effort here.

– Dr. Donald Bucklin AKA “Dr. B.”



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