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June 2nd, 2010
05:49 PM ET

Speaking out to protect a way of life

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent

Like many people living in south Louisiana, Acy Cooper is a third generation shrimper. When I shook his hand, you could feel the calluses from years spent out on the boat, and his 49-year-old face was weathered, just as you might expect in a man who spends most of his waking hours in the middle of the ocean. Shrimping is the only life he has ever known. He even made a crack about the movie character in “Forest Gump,” who rattles off all the different ways to prepare shrimp – “shrimp is the fruit of the sea, you can barbeque it, boil it, broil it, bake it, …”

Our conversation quickly turned serious, though. After spending days deliberating, Acy finally decided to speak out. Up until now, no fisherman working for BP has sat down for an interview with CNN. Acy says he wants to tell people about what is happening 50 miles out at sea, where oil has turned the water black. He wants to tell the stories of his workers, several hundred of them, who were fisherman, but now, temporarily work for BP. He wanted me to know that people are getting sick, and very little is being done to protect them.

When Acy took the job from BP, the company asked him to sign a form, which he says essentially amounted to a gag order. Sure Acy wants the job – after all, it is the only job he can get nowadays and he has bills to pay. So, when he started describing the workers lying on the edges of boats flat on their stomachs, their unprotected faces just inches away from the crude oil/dispersant mixture, he was nervous. He did it because he couldn’t stand the idea of them getting sick. He told me, “I couldn’t live with that.”

Fact is, it has already started. One of his good friends has a confirmed case of chemical poisoning, and has been in the hospital for several days. Dozens other have become sick. “Nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhea,” he told me. “It’s from breathing in the fumes,” he added. “Does it get better if you get away from the fumes and simply get fresh air?” I asked him. He smiled, looked down, and replied “sometimes.”

Riki Ott Ph.D., author of “Sound Truth and Corporate Myth,” says Acy’s right. I met with her earlier in the day. She has 21 years worth of data now from the Valdez disaster and told me about hundreds of cleanup workers who developed those same symptoms, and still had them more than a decade later. Most do get better, with symptoms lasting less than a week, but according to a study conducted at Yale, Valdez cleanup workers who had the most exposure to oil and chemicals reported conditions such as chronic airway disease and neurological impairment over a decade later. If you get a chance take a look at this information from the OSHA website. Keep in mind that many workers, including Acy, sometimes spend days in the water, as part of the cleanup efforts.

While stopping the oil leak has proven very difficult - protecting the cleanup workers is simpler. Providing respirator masks and adequate protective gear could go a long way toward preventing the illness in the short term, and the future. Riki got mad when telling me this. “BP doesn’t want to provide protective gear, because that means they are acknowledging the health risks, and will be forced to pay for people who get sick,” she yelled. “It all comes back to the money,” she continued.

It was raining today, when Acy and I sat and talked. I caught him looking at the ocean several times, and it’s clear that he is one of those guys more comfortable in the water than on the land. Right now, he wants to do everything he can to protect both – the water and the land he has known his entire life. It’s just that he would rather do it with some assurance of safety, protections against those toxic fumes, and the hope of a long disease free life. That is why Acy Cooper has broken his silence.

It seems like the least he could ask for.

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Joseph Doro

    So exactly where did the fuel come from that powered the shrimp boat ? or did he row it out or is it a sail? hey people we are all to blame. We are a gas guzzling group of children crying who ate too much ice cream that made them sick and are blaming then owner of the ice cream truck

    June 2, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Dimechimes

    I just hope the insurance companies are reading you as well. We at ClaimSmentor are very very concerned about field claims adjusters experiencing similiar illness when adjusting claims in gulf coast oil spill zones this hurricane season. Our prayers go out to all bp field workers from prior industries damaged by this horrid oil spill.

    June 2, 2010 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Buzz Baer

    Dr. Gupta: Are boats and other equipment used in the gulf being hosed off or cleaned so that toxins will not show up in different spots. Or are they just docked and reused the next time required? The second area is why fishermen are getting sick. Maybe the EPA and BP are sampling the air particles to far in the air and not directly over the rail of a boat used in cleanup of Gulf. Tks

    June 2, 2010 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Vanner

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    June 2, 2010 at 23:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Sherry

    Dr.Gupta, you have an extraordinary gift. Your writing is so beautiful and descriptive. Thanks so much for sharing. I feel like I am right there with you.

    June 3, 2010 at 00:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Pamela Rosenfeld

    It's time to get rid of gag orders.They Wouldn't have them if they had nothing to hide!!Good work Sanjay on your toxic america last nite also.

    June 3, 2010 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Barry

    Sanjay's interview shown this morning mentioned VOC's. Why isn't more being made of that with regard to Personal Protective Equipment for those on the cleanup?

    June 3, 2010 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. skippy mc carthy

    WHEN will Corporate Greed stop putting lives at "Risk"?

    BP employees gag orders so that they can sack at the snap of the fingers any reporting "Sick".

    Where are the "Head Honchos", safe in their Corporate Offices , they don't want to get sick nor do they want the "Gaol Time" coming their way!

    Do their families ever think of the risks the "Workers suffer" to put the food on their table? No chance, they are too busy behaving like an Emu(head buried until the storm blows over)!

    OBAMA has to act fast so that "Important paperwork" doesn't "Vanish"! Time a "Corporate Giant" went to Gaol so that the rest start thinking "Safety first for the workers", they too only have one life and deserve to be treated the way the "Corporates Honchos" treat their own family!

    June 3, 2010 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. A Mom

    Thanks for covering this very important story. Please do more like it.

    June 3, 2010 at 10:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dave56

    BP is toast, deservedly so.

    June 3, 2010 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Carol Sowell

    Joseph Doro, your comments are sickening. Too much of anything can cause problems. Your analogy of the child eating too much ice cream is spot on. The child overate the ice cream and became ill. Noxious fumes if breathed long enough makes one sick. Continuing to breathe the fumes that are making one sick can cause chronic problems.

    BP should be providing respirators...they know what is happening and they don't want to be responsible. They are, even if they don't ever pay a penny to these people. They should bring their own countrymen over here to clean up their mess.

    I feel sure if BP had simply capped the well and not tried to save it to use again, the repair and (permanent) capping would have been done already. I also feel if Obama was not beholden to them for the exhorbitant donations to his campaign, it would have been sealed for by now.

    June 4, 2010 at 10:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Karen

    Why is it a supprise that these oil fumes would be toxic? You can read on most cleaning labels not to breath the fumes while cleaning with a product or it can cause burning to the lungs.

    June 5, 2010 at 07:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Peter Thieberger

    Dr. Gupta reports on people breathing in petroleum fumes and having only "temporary" symptoms. That is BP's party line. Dr. Gupta knows better. He should not risk his well deseved prestige and show outrage. It is not enough to just express some mild surprize about the lack of masks and explain BP's legal reasons. He should give us his professional opinion. I am sure he would tell any of his patients to ware a mask.

    June 5, 2010 at 08:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Eva

    Thanks for covering this important story that effects so many people on an unrelated question Dr. Gupta have you stopped doing the show house call. I loved to watch the show every weekend and have not seen it at the time it is usaully on and was wondering if you had stopped doing the show..

    June 5, 2010 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Angus Reed

    The reported statement from BP that air quality standards are within limits is meaningless. When ever you dealing with oil (hydrocarbons), you will have VOC's in the air. The question is, what is the level in the breathing zone of the workers. You need to know this in order to determine if respirators are needed.

    VOC's can be measured with a hand held PID (photo ionization detector). Somebody needs to report on the frequency of safety officers with PID's taking reading where the workers are. Also, the incident safety & medical plans should be reviewed by Dr. Gupta (make a request of the PIO).

    June 6, 2010 at 08:38 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.