Workers cleaning up the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico have reported suffering from flu-like symptoms that may be the consequence of exposure to chemicals in the oil as well as the petroleum-derived solvent being used to disperse the spill.
The illness -- marked by headaches, fatigue, upset stomach, and problems with memory and concentration -- has been dubbed toxicant-induced loss of tolerance, or TILT. People suffering from TILT lose the ability to tolerate exposures to household chemical products, medication or even food, Dr. Claudia Miller of the University of Texas Health Science Center told WOAI TV:
"Things like diesel fuel, exposure to fragrances, cleaning agents that never bothered them before suddenly bother them," adds Dr. Miller.
Miller first described TILT in 1996, but it remains a controversial diagnosis among the medical community. The syndrome is also known as multiple chemical sensitivity and idiopathic environmental intolerance. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has defined the illness as a "chronic, recurring disease caused by a person's inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals."
Regardless of whether the illness being reported in Gulf cleanup workers and residents ends up being confirmed as TILT, the fact remains that the chemicals people are being exposed to in the oil and dispersants are known to have health impacts including eye, skin and respiratory irritation, as well as headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea and confusion. An analysis of EPA air testing data has found levels of these chemicals in coastal communities exceeding safety standards.
As of this week, the Louisiana Department of Health has documented 109 reports of illnesses among residents exposed to the spill, with 74 of those complaints coming from cleanup workers, according to ProPublica. In Alabama, another 19 cases of illness have been reported among people exposed to chemicals in the spill.
As Facing South reported, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network has been distributing safety equipment including respirators to cleanup workers -- but some workers have been threatened with firing if they wear them, apparently because of BP's liability worries.
In the U.S. Coast Guard photos accompanying this story, oil spill cleanup workers along Louisiana's coast can be seen performing their duties without respiratory protection. Concerns have also been raised about inadequate safety training being provided to workers.
Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans, blasted the lack of worker protections during an interview yesterday with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.
"What's happened in this situation is BP with the approval of our government has placed expediency over health protection," she said.
Watch the full interview with Harden here: