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Sick Fishermen and Oily Smells on the Gulf Coast

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Yesterday in Venice, Louisiana, fishermen and local residents called a press conference to talk about the air. People complained of the oily smells when the wind is blowing off the water, and listed symptoms including headaches, nosebleeds, asthma attacks, cough, nausea, and vomiting. Those who had been out on the water said it was even worse out there.

I'm not surprised -- I smelled it too. The smell that intermittently invades Venice and other locations along the Gulf Coast has a hint of creosote, but also the sickly smell of diesel fuel. It made my stomach turn, and I am not particularly sensitive to these things. It's clear that there's something in the air; the question is - is it harmful?

I went out late last week with an air monitoring device to look for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and benzene. It seemed reasonable to start with VOCs, especially benzene, because they are among the most toxic compounds that could be coming from the oil. I have blogged previously on the health effects of these chemicals.

Photos taken by NRDC, click for captions and more photos

During the two days I had the instrument, I only noticed the smell of oil once - when I was on a boat in Main Pass off the coast of Venice, with the wind blowing out of the south. The smell was intermittent, but the striking thing was that with each puff of odor the instrument detected an elevation in VOCs. The boat's engine had been off for more than five minutes and there was no other boat in sight. The chemicals were almost certainly coming off the oil.

The VOC levels that I measured were not terribly high - just a few parts-per-million - but the chemicals were clearly present in the air, despite the fact that there was no oily sheen visible on the water, and we were miles away from the spill. Unfortunately, the instrument malfunctioned, so I don't know if there was benzene in the air. The detectable VOC levels really made me worry about what things are like further out on the water where the fishermen are dragging boom and working to clean up the oil.

Thirteen fishermen asked us for respirators yesterday. They certainly didn't get any from BP. Instead, BP officials told the fishermen that the air quality is fine out where they are working to clean up the oil, but they won't release their data on air quality. Without the data, I can't verify if it's safe or not.

It's long past time for OSHA to step in to make BP release their data - or for the federal government to do independent measurements of air quality and release it to the public. People's noses aren't lying, and increasing numbers of fishermen and local residents are feeling ill. Something is in the air, and we need to know what it is.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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