07/30/2010 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Protecting Cleanup Workers Should Always Be the Number One Priority

Despite the enormity of the disaster, the media seem to have forgotten the Gulf Oil Spill. That's a shame, because, on Tuesday, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported that 324 people, 241 of them who were involved in the oil spill cleanup itself or offshore work, have reported illnesses related to oil or dispersants used during the cleanup effort in the Gulf.

And these disturbing reports seem eerily familiar to me.

After the tragedy of 9/11, I was on the board of directors of Trial Lawyers Care, a group of attorneys from all across the county who represented, without charge, affected individuals and families. We represented them in connection with their claims from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, because it was the only thing we could do to help.

While working with these families, I became aware of the danger that many of the recovery workers were facing, as they breathed in chemicals and toxins found at the disaster site. The workers were also worried but were assured that there was no danger to them in the air they were breathing. Those assurances were false and it soon became clear that these workers were facing respiratory problems and serious illness. Now we know that many are permanently injured, several have died, and others are dying because they came to help in our hour of profound need.

Today, the exact same thing is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of fisherman and other workers are assisting in cleaning up the worst oil spill in U.S. history. These men and women are being exposed to toxic chemicals without any respiratory protection. Like the 9/11 workers, in addition to the immediate symptoms that have already been reported, they are almost certainly facing health problems in the years ahead. Despite this certainty and the already large numbers of workers reporting illnesses, BP has denied requests for respiratory protection equipment from those working on the clean-up effort and even threatened to fire workers who wish to use the respirators provided free of charge by public health volunteers.

In June, a meeting of the National Academies' Institute of Medicine issued warnings about the unknown health risks facing clean-up workers. OSHA, on the other hand, argues most workers do not need respirators. "Most workers" may not, but which ones do and where are they? OSHA says perhaps the teams who are involved with burning siphoned oil from the spill may need protection, if the winds shift toward them. Even if you buy that logic, winds can shift in seconds. Certainly these workers need to be protected at all times. One of the most dangerous components of crude is benzene, a chemical that causes a fatal kind of leukemia. I have heard almost nothing about exposure to this toxin which is harmful in even small doses but whose effects take years to manifest themselves.

OSHA also acknowledges that many workers should protect their skin. Well, if these chemicals and toxins are bad for your skin, it is hard to accept that breathing them is not also a danger .

We know that about one-fifth of the offshore workers who were involved in the clean-up of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 were exposed to at least one chemical that is linked to their ongoing health problems. Thousands are now sick. About 10,000 site workers at the World Trade Buildings Site have gotten sick or died from their exposure to toxins. How can we let this happen again? It is outrageous to refuse to protect those men and women who are working in the Gulf today.

I launched an online campaign in June to gather co-signers to a letter urging the President and OSHA to take charge and order the provision of proper equipment for the workers in the Gulf. I hope they are listening. The health of thousands is in their hands. It is hard to trust those who are reassuring workers and the rest of us when, in past disasters, thousands have been harmed despite similar assurances. How about safety first? How about precautions now instead of treatment later? How about remembering the workers in New York City and Alaska who are now suffering the aftermath of trying to help?

Please sign on to our effort by clicking here -- and let's make SURE they remember.

(a version of this is crossposted at

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