It is our dream as environmentalists to see citizens step out of their comfort zones and take a stand on environmental issues. But waking up to Whatsapp images of ‘clean-up crews’ from the site of the Ennore oil spill, with grease on their hands and smiles on their faces is hardly doing it for us. In fact, it’s leaving us deeply distressed.
It’s easy to see why, especially when it falls on deaf ears that the oil spill is a toxic disaster, its cleanup could expose people to hazardous chemicals, and therefore the spill and the cleanup require expert attention and a specialised task force - definitely not enthusiastic volunteers or cheap labour that are risking their health to save the environment.
“People who clean up the spill are more at risk. Problems could include skin and eye irritation, neurologic and breathing problems, and stress. In the absence of comprehensive health monitoring among workers and volunteers, it is imperative that authorities take sufficient precautions to ensure workers and volunteers are protected from the chemical, physical and psychological hazards posed by the spill,” says Dr Rakhal Gaitonde, a public health expert based in Chennai.
When two ships collided at Kamarajar Port in Ennore last week, crude oil was split into the Bay of Bengal. Since then, the oil has washed ashore on nearly 30 kilometres of the beach south of the spill and it is estimated that almost 60 tonnes of crude oil has been lost to the seas.
According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, Crude oil is a complex mixture of chemical constituents including various alkanes (butane, pentane, and hexane); aromatic hydrocarbons (benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene, and xylenes); cycloalkanes; other nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur compounds (hydrogen sulfide); and trace metals such as iron, nickel, copper and vanadium.
“Some constituents of crude oil can have significant toxicity. For example, several aromatic hydrocarbons are considered to be human carcinogens. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) indicates that for crude oil, there is inadequate evidence for the carcinogenicity in humans, although there is limited evidence for carcinogenicity in experimental animals,” NIOSH says.
“Although it generates less volatile organic compounds (VOCs), weathered crude oil still contains harmful chemicals, which can cause skin irritation and other irritant reactions. Thus, use of gloves and protective clothing is recommended to minimize skin contact with weathered oil, including oil deposited on the shore (“tarballs” or “tarpatties”). Appropriate hand hygiene facilities should be readily available to clean incidental skin exposures.”
While the NIOSH strongly advocates for deploying protective gears for the workers engaged in the cleanup, volunteers, fire personnel and fishermen who have gathered to help are standing knee deep in the waters and collecting the sludge in plastic buckets with bare hands.
In response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the US, NIOSH had issued advisory stating that, “It is prudent to reduce the potential for adverse health effects by the responsible use of engineering controls, administrative controls and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including respirators when appropriate”.
The pictures of volunteers, while very high on “contentment” quotient are a worrying indicator for the sheer lack of PPE or the lack of regard for worker’s safety.
“The lack of proper safety equipment is irresponsible on the part of the authorities and especially the health department”, adds Dr Rakhal. As civil society we need to be more aware of the health impacts of the disaster and act responsibly and not emotionally!
For more information on Safety and Health Awareness for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers, read this.
Shweta Narayan and Archanaa Seker are environmental health advocates with Healthy Energy Initiative, India, investigating the links between energy choices and their health impacts.