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Georgianne Nienaber

Georgianne Nienaber

Posted: June 28, 2010 12:25 PM

We have no idea how much oil is flowing into the Gulf of Mexico as result of the April 20 explosion of the BP Transocean/Deepwater Horizon. We do know eleven men died there. There is no doubt that the environmental devastation is the worst this country has ever experienced, and there is no end in sight. There is much hype, fear, hyperbole, wrongful statements, panic and YouTube hysteria as the river of oil spreads across the water and flows into sensitive marshlands. We hear stories of turtles being burned alive at sea, oiled dolphins, bubbling dipersants, and blackened beaches following the spread of the catastrophic BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. There is also truth. Lies and collusion have been exposed, and fear is ramping up.

Fear and hysteria will be our undoing if the general public does not abandon a victim mentality and begin to be proactive about the actions we can take to become informed. This will require work, it will require learning more about science, and it will require discipline. We all have to learn how we can be effective and what is completely out of our control. Citizens want the protection of government and regulatory agencies, but resent the "big brother" implications. We can't have it both ways.

Journalists have a responsibility to examine the science and it will not be easy. The public has a responsibility to learn more about their environment. It is obvious that government is not looking out for Gulf Coast residents. Communities will be forced to step in and do independent monitoring.

One of the most important issues facing coastal residents is air quality.

There is good, solid information available, but sorting it out and getting answers to legitimate concerns about air quality and human health impacts is difficult. Part of the problem certainly lies in the bureaucratic structure surrounding air quality monitoring and data sets, as well as disagreement among the organizations set in place to protect the public as to acceptable limits of exposure to volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and xylene (VOCs), as well as the unknown effects of the dispersant COREXIT. Add Internet hysteria to the equation, possible data altering, poor sampling methods--and sifting fact from fiction becomes very difficult.

Grand Bayou, LA at risk

As someone who was exposed to significant amounts of benzene (it is an easily recognizable odor, similar to gasoline) while working on Gulf waters in and around Barataria Bay, I learned firsthand that it makes one feel ill. You feel as if someone is holding you upside down in a gas tank. Headaches, nausea and lingering vertigo are concerning symptoms and the first thing you want to know is how much exposure is "acceptable," and whether or not the symptoms will mitigate on their own. In my case, only the vertigo remains--almost two weeks post exposure. This writer was able to leave the area. Residents and clean-up workers do not have that option. They need clear answers and solid guidance. I am not sure that is possible.

There is no doubt, and experts agree, that benzene is carcinogenic, and induces health problems ranging from death in extreme acute exposure to central nervous system disorders, confusion, nausea and dizziness at the other end of the spectrum. Of the above-listed toxins, benzene is one of the most toxic, as long-term exposure to benzene has been proven to cause a variety of potentially fatal health problems.

Benzene has not been ignored in the public health arena. The sweet smelling by-product of crude petroleum is very commonly used in the industrial processes. It is toxic when inhaled or ingested. There are well-circulated studies from cities across the US in which data collected from air quality monitoring has revealed problems with varying limits of benzene in air and soil samples. It is not as if the scientific community has not studied benzene exposure. The problem is that there is no regulatory consensus as to what constitutes acceptable exposure at "lower" levels.

Who Recommends and Who Regulates?

Laws can enforce regulations, but lawsuits require proof and expensive monitoring. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can develop enforceable regulations for VOCs.

Law cannot enforce recommendations. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), formed to assess health risks at toxic superfund sites and part of the CDC, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are two federal organizations that recommend levels of exposure.

The EPA has determined that benzene is carcinogenic to humans.

Brief exposure (5-10 minutes) to very high levels of benzene in air (10,000-20,000 ppm) can result in death. Lower levels (700-3,000 ppm) can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness.

OSHA regulates levels of benzene in the work place. The maximum allowable amount of benzene in workroom air during an 8-hour workday, 40-hour work week is 1 ppm (part per million). NIOSH recommends that all workers wear special breathing equipment when they are likely to be exposed to benzene at levels exceeding the recommended (8-hour) exposure limit of 0.1 ppm. The EPA says an exposure of .0004 ppm in air over a lifetime could cause a risk of one additional cancer case for every 100,000 exposed persons.

There is no baseline standard of comparison for exposure time among agencies.

So, benzene is clearly of concern and exposure should be limited. What, exactly, are the levels currently experienced by Gulf coast residents and cleanup crews working on the seas?

Often, benzene exposure gets lumped into a total data set of VOCs, which further confuses the issue.

The majority of samples (128 out of 187) had measurable levels of total hydrocarbons and 28 had levels greater than 10 ppm, which is the level of concern EPA is using for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). In contrast, the BP summary cites an "action limit" of greater than 100 ppm -- a level that would be fairly certain to make people sick.

Eleven samples had measurable levels of the known carcinogen benzene, with measurements up to 0.5 ppm. This range encompasses the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for occupational exposure to benzene of 0.1 ppm. From the data presented it is impossible to ascertain how many of the samples exceeded this health-based level.

The BP document contained no data at all on hydrogen sulfide, naphthalene, dispersant chemicals, and other air pollutants that are harmful to health and that workers are likely to be exposed to.

What do you do when the levels exceed the "recommended" exposure by NIOSH, but remain below the EPA threshold? Sometimes comparative studies list exposure in micrograms or milligrams/cubic meter, and while a simple mathematical conversion is required to convert to ppm, it is not something the general public or journalists will undertake.

Instead of solid answers as to acceptable limits of benzene exposures, we are left with comparisons. We can look at numbers derived on the Gulf and say they may be higher or lower than what is permissible for exposure at a gas pump (after we complete the conversion), or higher or lower than numbers permissible for BP workers on the rigs, on cleanup, or in their offices, but it is all numbers that have no relation to each other. OSHA numbers are higher than the NIOSH limits and EPA numbers target specific locations and don't take atmospheric conditions, distance from the main source, or have rigid controls in place. It is hit or miss sampling and hit or miss evaluations by the regulatory agencies that were put in place to protect us.

In a 2009 study of air quality, "Alabama Air Polluted with Benzene," researchers found that levels of benzene and other VOCs were present in "concentrations well above air safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In some cases, levels of toxins exceeded federal standards by over 9,000 percent."

In "Regulation of Occupational Carcinogens Under OSHA's Air Contaminants Standard," authors Dalton G. Paxmana and James C. Robinson of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley criticize the exclusion of stricter NIOSH data in establishing regulations in the workplace.

We compare the information used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate carcinogens under its 1989 Air Contaminants Standard to publicly available information on substances with potential carcinogenic activity. Carcinogenicity evaluations were obtained from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). We focus on three sets of substances: those which were regulated as carcinogens by OSHA in the Standard, those which were included in the Standard but whose exposure limits are based on noncarcinogenic effects, and those substances designated as potential carcinogens by NIOSH, ACGIH, and/or NTP but which were excluded from the Standard. The data indicate that OSHA relied almost exclusively upon the recommendations of the nongovernmental ACGIH to the exclusion of IARC and the three governmental bodies. Given their statutory authority to evaluate chemical carcinogenicity for regulatory agencies such as OSHA, the exclusion of NIOSH and NTP is particularly striking.

Along the Gulf Coast, the EPA is using a mobile trace atmospheric gas analyzer to evaluate benzene, toluene, and xylene levels. You can go to the site and download comma-delineated files that compare levels at any given date, time and location.


The TAGA bus monitors for two chemicals found in the COREXIT dispersants: EGBE (2-butoxyethanol), and dipropylene glycol mono butyl ether, "which have the highest potential to get into the air in any significant amounts." But, for simplicity we are leaving COREXIT out of the discussion. You may read about the EPA monitoring technique here.

Of course, dispersants require a separate discussion as to legality and toxicity.

The first caveat is that this site is partnered with the "unified joint command," which includes BP, but the information is fascinating to watch. Whether it is entirely reliable is not a question I am prepared to answer, and I welcome experts to weigh in on this.

For one example, if you go to the TAGA site and click on the monitoring results for June 25, there are a wide range of readings in parts per billion. (multiply parts per billion by .001 to obtain parts per million) The highest is 72 ppb (volume) or .072 ppm, which is higher than the EPA exposure limit of .0004 ppm in air over a lifetime, and smaller than the NIOSH level of .1 ppm for an eight-hour work week.

Gina Solomon's report for OFFSHORE measurements showed benzene up to .5 ppm, far above the NIOSH standard and less than the EPA limit for lifetime exposure. Eleven samples had measurable levels of the known carcinogen benzene, with measurements up to 0.5 ppm

The difficulty in drawing conclusions is obvious.

There are two areas of concern that journalists should address, and it will take some digging.

Are the TAGA results reliable, can they be doctored, and what do they mean for ONSHORE health?

Secondly, how do Gulf coast residents take control of their own monitoring?

One of the most interesting blogs offered screenshots indicating that the EPA had altered posted data. If this proves to be true, independent oversite is imperative. Screen scrubbing is common and we have seen this is the past with the Coast Guard's PR firm in New Orleans as one example.

A simple solution would be for local communities to establish their own water and air quality monitoring. It is expensive. We looked into getting some equipment for the Atakapa, an indigenous People living on Grand Bayou, who have been continually marginalized. Their entire culture and way of life is in a precarious situation as the BP catastrophe unfolds. Cost for basic monitoring equipment? $20,000. Any takers? The Atakapa need help.

We will be writing more about the Atakapa and their fight for survival in the coming week.

In the meantime, here are some links that may be helpful. As a caveat, I ran this article past a lawyer and a doctor who told me it might be above the "average reader's" head. That is a sad commentary. It is time for everyone to become an expert in understanding their environment.


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