The rapid expansion of oil and gas activities has been driven by intense political and economic pressures. Increased frequency of spills have created large areas with at-risk populations––the so-called “Sacrifice Zones.” These zones are not just in remote areas, but also populated urban areas. The public health symptoms from exposure to oil and gas activities in these areas are strikingly similar and include respiratory problems, central nervous system problems, skin problems, and blood problems, among others.
The increased use of oil-based solvents makes this situation worse, as solvents are toxic by nature and target the same organs of the body as crude oil. Various combinations of solvents and chemicals are used as dispersants to break up oil slicks, diluents to thin tar sands for transportation, and fracking fluids to extract oil from oil-bearing shale. Solvents act as an enhanced oil delivery mechanism, facilitating the uptake of oil into the body.
Stories of sickness associated with oil exposure trailed us across the states. In the communities impacted by the BP disaster, we heard stories of chemical sensitivities, worsened allergies, cancers that reoccurred, bodies “riddled” with new cancers, mood swings and depressions, general fatigue, and many of the same symptoms we’ve heard since the BP disaster. Most people have “normalized the abnormal” and still do not connect their long-term symptoms with the possibility of chemical illnesses from exposure to oil and dispersants.
For example, in Coden, Alabama, Lori and her two young grandchildren took us to the public boat launch where Lori had been sprayed with Corexit dispersant at point-blank range during the 2010 BP disaster response. Other families and children were playing in the water and swimming. Lori’s grandchildren begged her to let them swim but Lori, who is now chemically sensitive and still gets sick from being near the beach, knows BP’s oil and chemicals are still present in the air, water, and beach. “It breaks my heart,” she said. “I grew up swimming here. These kids have swum here, but we haven’t been swimming since the BP disaster. It’s just not safe.” Other families present admitted that they or their children had symptoms similar to those Lori described, but they had not realized that the symptoms were likely connected to BP’s oil disaster or that they should seek medical advice for chemical illnesses.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, Michelle reported that 28 residents in her former trailer park along the Kalamazoo River have died from recurring cancers, worsening respiratory problems, cardiovascular issues, seizures, and more, since Enbridge tar sands oil flowed past their homes in 2010. As with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the killing and health impacts didn’t stop after the disaster, but continue to impact those exposed and their families 25 years later.
In Stillwater, Oklahoma, Angela hosted a luncheon for Payne County landowners concerned about “backyard fracking” activities. Angela and her husband now have a frack well flaring about 1,000 feet from the home where they had hoped to retire. She, her husband, and their dogs started having health issues once the drilling began. For two hours, the group talked about their respiratory problems, headaches, brain fog, dizziness, and more, and learned to their surprise that everyone was having similar symptoms; that these symptoms cleared when they left for a week of more; and that the symptoms returned when they returned home.
Laws designed to protect air and water quality and human health were passed in the 1970s and have not been updated based on recent scientific and medical advances. People are getting sick from crude oil exposure at levels below those considered safe by the government. The general public, spill responders, and many health care providers are unaware of the exposure risks, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment for chemical illnesses.