June 17th, 2010
07:51 PM ET

Should you worry about burning the oil spill?

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Senior Medical Producer

As cleanup workers burn off oil from BP’s ruined Deepwater Horizon well, the black clouds of smoke soaring skyward are carrying questions about health risks, along with a thick helping of soot, volatile gases and other toxic byproducts.

The most immediate risk is to cleanup workers or others in proximity to the burn, according to Dr. Phil Harber, head of the division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

However, depending on the eventual scope of the burn, and length of the cleanup effort, others on shore could be affected, says Harber. “People with asthma, or who are very young, or who have cardiac disease,  are much more likely to be sensitive the released pollutants.”


June 10th, 2010
09:05 AM ET

How will the oil spill affect my health?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here are several questions related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Dr. Gupta.

From Jacque, Mobile, Alabama

"What health problems could the dispersant Corexit cause? I still don't understand why BP continues to use it."


June 8th, 2010
01:34 PM ET

CDC answers health questions about the oil spill

By Ann J. Curley
CNN Medical News Assignment Manager

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are monitoring the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster for any public health hazards.

The CDC web site says they are  in constant contact with state officials and preparing to support and respond to any developing health threats.

In the meantime, the CDC has posted answers to FAQs, including whether the oil will hurt people who touch it or those who breathe by products of the oil spill. Read more here.

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.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

June 1st, 2010
09:14 AM ET

'Money is killing us,' Gulf fisherman says

By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Senior Medical Correspondent

The latest health risk in the Gulf of Mexico is an abundance of money, says one Louisiana  fisherman.

“Money,” says Clint Guidry, acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, “is killing us.”

BP is paying fishermen up to $3,000 a day to help clean up the oil, according to a contract between BP and one of the fishermen obtained by CNN.

He says the nine fishermen who were brought to the hospital while working for BP are unwilling to talk because they fear losing their jobs. The men suffered symptoms such as shortness of breath, irritated nasal passages, nausea and headaches.

“Working for BP is their livelihood, since they can’t fish anymore,” Guidry said. “BP is putting food on their tables. These gentlemen won’t talk publicly because they’re scared for their well-being and scared for their families.”

Graham MacEwen, spokesperson for the petroleum company, says workers have no reason to fear retaliation if they speak out and should feel free to voice any safety concerns to their supervisors.

Several of the shrimpers contacted by CNN declined to talk on the record.

When the clean-up effort first started, BP required those hired to work in their “Vessels of Opportunity” program to sign confidentiality agreements, according to Jim Klick, an attorney representing two fishermen who became ill while working for BP. But he says the clause was taken out after objections from lawyers.

Even those who didn’t sign a confidentiality agreement are scared of retaliation by BP if they speak out, Klick added

“There’s huge concerns about this,” he said.

It’s not clear exactly what’s made the fishermen sick. Guidry says it’s breathing in vapors from a combination of the oil and Corexit, the dispersant being used to break down the oil, but Tony Hayward, the chief executive officer of BP, has another theory.

“Food poisoning is a very big issue,” Hayward said Sunday. “We have to be very mindful of that.”

Guidry was having a cup of coffee Monday morning at a marina in Lafitte, Louisiana, when he heard Hayward talking on CNN. The marina had a pool table.

“I couldn’t believe it. First, he makes our boys sick, and then he insults good Cajun cooking,” he said. “If he’d been right here, I would have shoved the pool cue down his throat.”

Filed under: Gulf oil spill

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About this blog

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.