The Conspiracy of Silence around PAHs
Recently volunteers from all over New Zealand flocked to one of our most pristine beach and wildlife areas to help clean up a massive fuel oil spill from a freighter that ran aground off Tauranga. The government, which initially banned untrained volunteers from assisting, reversed themselves when they realized they had insufficient trained personnel. The public health officer warned that people who worked in areas with strong petroleum fumes might experience headaches, respiratory problems, stomach upset and dizziness for few days. However he reassured us there would be no long term health effects.
The irony here is that Christchurch makes visitors to the “red” inner zone sign disclaimers that they might be trapped or killed by falling buildings. Yet in Tauranga, the government allows hundreds of Kiwis to expose themselves to toxic oil fumes without informing them that inhaling polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can cause cancer, birth and immune defects, miscarriage, bleeding and nervous system disorders and a host of other chronic medical problems (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/pah/docs/pah.pdf).
Should this be a surprise, coming from the same Ministry of Health that denied for years that lead, asbestos, dioxin and fluoride are dangerous to human health? See * below for a list of common PAHs.
The Obama/BP Cover-up
We see the same conspiracy of silence in the way Obama and BP have dealt with the 2010 Gulf oil spill, even though hundreds of workers continue to be seriously ill more than a year after the disaster officially ended with the capping of the damaged Horizon well. People who followed the Gulf tragedy closely will recall that BP threatened to fire clean-up workers (many fishermen put out of work by the spill) who wore respirators to protect themselves from the toxic fumes. Apparently this wasn’t so much to protect BP’s image as to reduce their liability for future health problems.
Environmental scientists have warned of the dangers of human exposure to large quantities of petroleum-based PAHs – through air and skin contact and contaminated food – since two-thirds of the nearly 7,000 workers who cleaned up the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 developed long term illnesses. Many have died or become permanently disabled as a result of PAH exposure.
Enter Riki Ott
It was her direct experience in Valdez that led former Alaska fisherwoman Dr Riki Ott to become a marine toxicologist and devote her life to ending the conspiracy of silence around this major public health problem (see http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2011/09/oil_spill_expert_riki_ott_outl.html). At present, Riki is helping residents of Emmett Michigan address a myriad of health problems after a tar sands oil pipeline spilled more than 800,000 gallons of diluted bitumen oil into the Kalamazoo River in July 2010. Emmett children are disproportionately affected. However both adults and children are complaining of persistent breathing problems, weakness, headaches, rashes, chronic stomach upset and diarrhea, pins and needless, sore throats and blisters in their throat, bloody noses and blood in their urine and stool. There is an excellent video of Riki’s presentation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNYseR-eZ54
Why Corexit Increases Toxicity
As Riki and other environmental scientists have discovered, adding the toxic dispersant Corexit (banned in the UK because it’s an endocrine disruptor) solves the cosmetic problem of ugly black goo on rocks, beaches and surface water. However it substantially increases the risk of animal and human exposure to PAHs. It does so by causing the oil to remain suspended in the water, where it’s more bioavailable to the food chain and more easily released to the air. Without Corexit treatment, most of the PAHs get trapped in sticky tar balls that can be collected and disposed of as they roll up on the beach. They used Corexit in both New Orleans and Tauranga and an unknown fresh water dispersant in Michigan.
In Emmett, those most affected weren’t clean-up workers but residents living close proximity to the Kalamazoo River. Yet they have experienced the exact same health problems as clean-up workers from Exxon Valdez, the Gulf oil spill and a 2007 spill in South Korea Riki studied. In the twenty years since the Exxon Valdez disaster, molecular biologists have pinpointed the extensive damage PAHs cause at the cellular level, including direct DNA damage leading to cancer and birth defects.
To be continued.
* List of toxic PAHs (from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)