05/17/2010 08:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"We hope people have gloves" - Health and safety questions persist for Deepwater Horizon responders and Gulf Coast communities

Pictures of oiled pelicans are in the news. Less photogenic and less obvious are potential adverse health impacts to responders or to Gulf Coast communities. But the recovery effort is putting tens of thousands of people in the path of toxic substances they would not otherwise encounter and there's concern among environmental health professionals that more - and more immediate - attention must be paid to potential public and occupational health impacts. Health and safety experts involved in the response are asking these questions with the experience of the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina emergencies weighing heavily. "We don't think adequate protection is being provided, but we think it will be," said a federal health official late last week.

On Monday May 17th, the Joint Information Center (JIC) of the official Deepwater Horizon Response reported 17,000 personnel - military and civilian but not including volunteers - responding to the incident, up from 13,000 four days earlier. The JIC puts the volunteer count at 14,500; BP has it at 16,000.

More than 750 boats are now actively engaged in the response. About 1000 boats - normally engaged in fishing, shrimping, tourism or other activities now halted by the oil disaster - have signed up for what's called the Vessels of Opportunity program, says Tamara Joslin, BP's Incident Training Lead.

It's now nearly a month since the fatal explosion and rig collapse that triggered the ongoing disaster. Over the past week to 10 days, health and safety training for responders and volunteers have begun in a systematic way. But in the first days and weeks this was not so. And there's concern on the part of both federal environmental and occupational health agency staff and those representing Gulf Coast fisherman and communities that such preparation are not adequate. Under exemptions established during the Exxon Valdez oil spill response, BP can offer 4 hour trainings in lieu of the otherwise required 40-hour training. Initially BP asked boat owners signing up for clean-up duty to sign a waiver that relieved BP of responsibility for crew health and safety training. That agreement was ruled unacceptable by a Louisiana District Court on May 6th.

Health and safety concerns stem not only from direct contact with oil and chemical dispersants and their vapors that can occur while skimming, laying boom or other clean-up activities, but also from air quality impaired by pollutants emanating from the oil, ongoing surface burning of oil, and from chemical dispersants being applied at unprecedented volume. As of May 17th, a reported 625,000 gallons of dispersants had been used, most sprayed aerially, but some is also being applied from boats, and also now underwater. More than 6.6 million gallons of oily water have now been recovered and over 300 miles of containment and absorbent boom laid.

"Exposure is highest now," noted National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) director Linda Birnbaum at a meeting discussing these efforts on May 13th.

The Louisiana Departments of Environmental Quality, Health and Hospitals, and Fisheries and Wildlife are in correspondence with BP to determine health impacts from dispersants to local communities via air, water, and seafood contamination. Their questions have yet to be fully answered. Some answers raise more questions.

For example, BP's May 11th response to the agencies says that 2-butoxyethanol, an ingredient of one of the dispersants being used (Corexit 9527) is - according to Dow Chemical - of "low acute toxicity to mammals" But according to NIEHS, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) recommended exposure limit to 2-butoxyethanol is 5 parts per million for a full work shift.

The NIOSH recommended exposure limit to the petroleum distillates that are key ingredients of the other dispersant being used at even greater volume (Corexit 9500A) is also 5 ppm for a full work shirt or for short-term exposure, about 15 minutes worth of such mist. NIEHS cautions that even low levels of such exposure can be a health concern.

"We hope people have gloves," said Chip Hughes director of NIEHS Worker Environmental Training Program at the May 13th meeting. These petroleum products are known skin hazards.

BP's May 11th letter mentions plans to use Corexit 9580 to remove crude oil form beach and shoreline when needed. BP describes this product as having a "low degree of toxicity to marine organisms," this according to its manufacturer, Nalco. Yet the material safety data sheet indicates that Corexit 9580 is 60-100% petroleum distillates, the same solvent used in Corexit 9500A.

Advocates for Gulf Coast communities - among them the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Gulf Restoration Network - are questioning the EPA's analysis of air monitoring data and restrictions of independent sampling and testing of water and soil being imposed by BP. "The government is walking in lock step with BP on this," said Stuart Smith who is representing Gulf Coast fishermen and community members in law suits against BP.

"It's a great week for clean up," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry at a May 17th press briefing. Health and safety training for Vessels of Opportunity crew are scheduled throughout the week, with one in Vietnamese planned for Harrison County, Mississippi on May 20th.

Further details of what I've learned investigating these issues can be read at The Pump Handle and The Faster Times.