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Gulf Left Gasping for Air from BP Oil Spill's Many Toxins

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By Susan Buchanan, Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly –

(NNPA) - Southeast Louisiana residents and workers on the water have kept medics busy and poison hotlines humming for three months because of exposure to toxic emissions from BP's oil spill. Several hundred coas tal dwellers went from sniffing April blossoms to rushing to doctors and hospitals for respiratory and other ailments caused by foul air since the rig explosion.

The state's Dept. of Health and Hospitals last month said 290 spill-related medical cases had been reported to date. Of those, 216 were workers doing oil-cleanup duty or manning oil rigs, and 74 were people taken ill on shore.

Burning and evaporation of oil and gas have hurt air quality, while residents live near toxic waters filled with oil and dispersants. As of last week, 363 miles of Louisiana coastline were oiled, far more than in any other state.

In its spill response, BP's first, open-water, burning of oil in the Gulf open-water, burning of oil in the occurred on April 28, according to the company. On June 3, BP started capturing oil and flaring gas at the well with the installation of the Lower Marine Riser Package-containment cap. The LMRP took oil and gas to the drill-ship Discoverer Enterprise, where oil was collected and gas was flared. A second oil-recovery system began operating at the well in mid-June, and carried oil and gas to the Q4000 well-intervention vessel-where both oil and gas were flared.

If you live near the coast and don't feel well, you might want to crack open an old, school chemistry book to look for some reasons. Bhaskar Kura, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of New Orleans, is researching local air quality, and collected samples by boat at Grand Bayou in Port Sulphur in June with Arizona State University staffers. Kura said a group of air pollutants of varying toxicity to human, know as hydrocarbons, are contained in crude oil. Pollutants that enter the air from evaporating crude include benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene.

Additional pollutants enter the atmosphere from spill-cleanup activities, like oil slick burning. He is director of UNO's Maritime Environmental Resources and Information Center.

Kura's earliest findings will be released soon, and he plans to conduct much more research, including detailed sampling near the well site and other spots with universities from several states.

Nicholas Cheremisinoff, PhD chemical engineer and consultant in West Virginia, said "air monitoring data reported on BP's spill-response website show hardly any impact to air quality, which is inconsistent with the more than 300 fishermen and cleanup workers that have been admitted to Louisiana hospitals in the last two months." He is a former Exxon chemical engineer and a consultant to oil and chemical industries.

Residents as far north as New Orleans who have smelled oil in recent months wonder just how bad the air is and whether the government is downplaying threats to prevent panic.

Cheremisinoff said "the black smoke observed from burning oil slicks in the Gulf contained sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organics, hydrogen sulfide, poly?aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These products of incomplete combustion contribute to the formation of acid aerosols, soot and promote particle formation in the atmosphere. The emissions are toxic on their own, and contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain, which worsens air quality."

Burning oil slicks, known as 'in situ' burning, is more hazardous to humans than flaring gas at the well site, he said. When BP recovered oil from the well and burned the gas, those emissions were not as significant as burning slicks, he noted. Natural gas is comprised of methane, and is a relatively clean-burning fuel, with low levels of particulates. He is a former Exxon chemical engineer and a consultant to oil and chemical industries.

Workers on water are exposed to smoke from controlled burns of oil and to oil evaporating in water.

"Workers and possibly residents inhale volatile organic compounds and other hydrocarbons," Chere?misinoff said. "Oil vapors cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathing difficulties, vomiting and eye and throat irritation. And bear in mind that crude oil is a mixture of hundreds of chemicals, most of which are toxic." Inhaling quantities of fumes can cause chemical poisoning, called hydrocarbon pneumonia.

"Oil-slick burning generates a broad, particle-size distribution of soot and particulate matter," Cheremisinoff said. "From a health-risk standpoint, there's concern about inhaling small particulate matter that is under 10 microns in size, to particle sizes all the way up to 30 microns-which can be ingested."

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