Workers hired to clean up the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico have significantly altered blood profiles, according to a new study, putting them at an increased risk of developing fatal illnesses, including leukemia, lymphoma and liver damage.
A study published Tuesday in the American Journal of Medicine shows that more than 170,000 cleanup workers who responded to the 2010 explosion of BP’s Macondo well, the Deepwater Horizon, were exposed to benzene, a powerful carcinogen that is easily absorbed into human tissue.
“Benzene is a very toxic substance. It’s easily absorbed through tissues, such as your skin,” said Mark A. D’Andrea, the study’s lead author and medical director for the University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers. “Once it enters your system, it affects several organs.”
The study found abnormal values for enzymes in the blood of 117 former cleanup workers, when compared to 130 participants not involved in spill cleanup.
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Workers had higher levels of three liver enzymes, which are normally a warning sign of liver dysfunction and damage. Live damage increases the risk of liver, pancreas and gallbladder cancers.
D’Andrea said benezene travels to the bone marrow through a person’s blood. Damage to bone marrow means a higher risk of leukemias, lymphoma and myelomas.
The workers also had fewer blood-clotting platelets and lower blood urea nitrogen and creatinine, which are indicators of kidney health.
The study also documented spill workers’ clinical visits from 2010 to November 2012 and found the majority are reported headaches, shortness of breath, skin rashes, and chronic coughing.
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“Based on extensive monitoring conducted by BP and the federal agencies, response worker and or public exposures to dispersants were well below levels that would pose a health or safety concern,” BP said.
However, D’Andrea said there is little research in the U.S. on benzene exposure.
“There are not a whole lot of studies of incident exposure in the United States, even though we have a big petrochemical industry,” D’Andrea said.
BP spokesman Jason Ryan criticized the study for having a small sample size, “fewer than 0.1 percent of the workers involved in the cleanup.”
He claimed the study had a selection bias, since participants were “referred by their legal counsel, not randomly recruited.”
“This selection bias raises fundamental questions about the study,” Ryan said, adding that “the authors present no basis for assigning clinical significance to the non-specific biological markers they report.”