Oil Cleanup Workers Feeling Sickly - Is it the Oil, the Dispersant, Or Both?

Sick bed. Image credit:Chuck Connelly Gallery.

WDSU, has a story out of Lafitte LA, in which Fishermen Report Illness From BP Chemicals. Here's the substance of it: "The fishermen are working out in the Gulf -- many of them all day, every day -- to clean up the spill. They said they blame their ailments on the chemicals that BP is using." Though the story does not come right out and say so, it seems as though they are referring to chemicals used in the Corexit dispersant formulation being used by BP.

Corexit is a formulation which includes a fair amount of petroleum distillate. Petroleum distillate is a generic term for a non-specific blend of hydrocarbon molecules, similar to mineral spirits, naptha, or gasoline. Corexit also contains propylene glycol, which is found in various drugs and foods by FDA permission. Also used in tatoo inks and for massage oils! And finally there is an unknown detergent, and a lot of water. Let's look first at the distillate.Petroleum distillate is a refinery product -which is made by distilling and 'cracking' crude oil. So, it would be pretty hard to objectively separate out whether the reported ill feelings are attributed to crude oil vapors, to components of the distillate made from crude oil, and mixed with spilled oil, or to both.

Putting a micrometer on a fog bank.
Keep in mind how difficult it is to separate cause and effect when you see headlines like this one. BP Kept Using Toxic Chemical in Gulf After E.P.A. Deadline

There may be multiple toxic chemicals workers are exposed to. For example, there may be low levels of such highly hazardous chemicals as toluene and benzene in petroleum distillate and/or in crude oil. Or, in only one of them. Or, in neither, as we have no product or material specific data.

Routes of exposure.
Some hydrocarbons can slowly permeate human skin and anyone working with oil spills should wear protective gloves, aprons and boots, for example (even in the hot weather). However, it is likely that respiratory exposure is the first concern.

Here are some hazards known to be associated with breathing gasoline vapors, per an Exxon-Mobil published MSDS (MSDS' for gasoline are similar but not identical across the oil industry. This one is cited because it seemed comprehensive.)

Effects of Overexposure [to gasoline]:INHALATION MAY CAUSE







  • COMA,



How to guard against respiratory exposure.
Not everyone can safely and effectively wear a 'gas mask' or 'respiratory protection.' Persons with poor lung function, heavy smokers, persons with respiratory allergy, those with a heart condition, and others should not wear them unless it is with a doctors' approval.

Beards and sideburns must be completely removed and the face always kept clean shaven - otherwise the protective mask loses effectiveness and becomes pointless.

Mask wearers must be 'fit tested' to make sure they have the right size and shape so that the seal is effective.

So, handing out masks without training and supervision does not get the cleanup done safely.

Recapping the highlights.

  • Similar volatile hazardous organic chemicals may be present in both crude oil and dispersant.

  • It is not possible to associate the symptoms being reported with a single "chemical".

  • Handing out gas masks is not very helpful unless users are fit tested, trained in proper use, and supervised.

Don't worry too much about the propylene glycol. Per Wikipedia, here are some common applications:

Propylene glycol is used:
* As a solvent in many pharmaceuticals, including oral, injectable and topical formulations. Notably, diazepam, which is insoluble in water, uses propylene glycol as its solvent in its clinical, injectable form.[5]
* As a humectant food additive, labeled as E number E1520
* As an emulsification agent in Angostura and orange bitters
* As a moisturizer in medicines, cosmetics, food, toothpaste, mouth wash, and tobacco products
* As a carrier in fragrance oils
* As an ingredient in massage oils
* In hand sanitizers, antibacterial lotions, and saline solutions
* In smoke machines to make artificial smoke for use in firefighters' training and theatrical productions
* In electronic cigarettes, it is used to deliver vaporized nicotine
* As a solvent for food colors and flavorings
* As an ingredient, along with wax and gelatin, in the production of paintballs
* As a moisture stabilizer (humectant) for snus (Swedish style snuff).
* As a cooling agent for beer and wine glycol jacketed fermentation tanks
* As a non-toxic antifreeze for winterizing drinking water systems, and in applications where the used antifreeze eventually will be drained into the soil, water, or a septic system.[6]
* As a less-toxic antifreeze in solar water heating systems
* As a solvent used in mixing photographic chemicals, such as film developers
* In cryonics
* As a working fluid in hydraulic presses
* As a coolant in liquid cooling systems
* To regulate humidity in a cigar humidor
* As the killing and preserving agent in pitfall traps, usually used to capture ground beetles
* As an additive to pipe tobacco to prevent dehydration.
* To treat livestock ketosis
* As the main ingredient in deodorant sticks.
* To de-ice aircraft.[7]
* As an ingredient in UV or blacklight tattoo ink

Tags: Oil Spill