Spraying chemical dispersant Corexit
© n/aSpraying chemical dispersant Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico
A year after the BP disaster, some Southerners say they're coming down with mysterious and frightening illnesses

"This is the best-hidden secret perhaps in the history of our nation."

Dr. Mike Robichaux speaks into a microphone while standing on a truck bed in the shade of a massive tree in his yard in Raceland, La. He's wearing a blue polo shirt and jeans, and his white-gray hair is parted neatly. The former state senator, known affectionately as Dr. Mike, is an ear, nose and throat specialist in Lafourche Parish and self-described "too easygoing of a guy." But today, he's pissed.

"Nobody is fussing about this," he says.

Robichaux invited his patients and dozens of others to speak about their situations. Outside of neighborhood papers with names like the Houma Courier, the Daily Comet and Tri-Parish Times, their stories exist solely on blogs and Facebook - unless you visit Al Jazeera English, or sources in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.

A Swiss TV crew asks me why U.S. media aren't talking about this. It's a good question.

In the wake of the BP oil disaster, thousands of Gulf cleanup workers and residents have reported illnesses, with symptoms as tame as headaches or as violent as bloody stools and seizures. Nonprofit groups and teams of scientists are looking for answers using blood tests, surveys, maps, and soil and seafood samples.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), a nonprofit environmental group, recently completed its survey of coastal Louisiana residents and found a dire need for medical attention. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) began its "Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study for Oil Spill Clean-Up Workers and Volunteers" (GuLF Study) to follow the health of 55,000 cleanup crew members over 10 years. It's the largest study to monitor the disaster, but it won't be treating its participants. GuLF Study leader Dr. Dale Sandler says the illnesses "need to be taken seriously."

"People are sick," she says.

So where is the help?

'Driving me crazy'

Behind Robichaux, cars line a gravel drive along the bayou. Guests pull up chairs around the truck bed, cameras are rolling, and members of the media outweigh the guests 10-to-1. A year after the April 20, 2010 wellhead explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf for more than 100 days, and closed fisheries and businesses along the Gulf Coast, some people are finally listening.

"We wanted to be proactive and go out there and get it cleaned up as fast as we can, and do whatever it takes," remembers charter boat captain Louis Bayhi, who worked for BP in the early days of the disaster. When his crew made it to shore, he went through a triage tent where doctors asked how he was feeling - but his complaints of headaches were brushed off as seasickness, he says.

Months later, Bayhi still hasn't been paid the $255,000 he says he's owed for his work in Vessels of Opportunity, a BP-administered program wherein private boat-owners assisted with cleanup efforts. He's visited hospitals for severe abdominal pains, but he doesn't have health insurance, and no insurance provider will take him on, he says. He lost his home, and he and his family - his wife and his 2- and 3-year-old daughters - now live with his wife's grandmother. The family visited Grand Isle beaches in August, where his kids swam in the water and played in the sand.

"My little girls now have more toxins in their blood than I have. That hurts more. I blame myself," he says, fighting back tears. "I let them go and swim and play in the beach, but at the same time those sons of bitches said it was safe."

Bayhi's story is not uncommon for many living on the Gulf Coast.

One of the first "whistleblowers" in south Louisiana, Kindra Arnesen, a fisherman's wife in Plaquemines Parish, became a public face of mysterious diagnoses and chemical exposure symptoms last summer. Others have come forward, like 22-year-old Paul Doom from Navarre, Fla., who says he swam in the Gulf last summer and now experiences daily seizures and is in a wheelchair following a stroke - with hundreds of doctors he has seen unable to explain why.

Clayton Matherne is a former professional wrestler of 15 years, and at 295 pounds, he looks it. Yet Robichaux says, "When I first met him, he was dying. Literally dying."

Matherne was an engineer on a support boat near the Deepwater rig when it exploded, and says crews sprayed dispersants directly on top of him. Matherne wasn't provided a respirator. Since May 30, 2010, he's suffered paralysis, impaired vision and severe headaches, and he frequently coughs up blood.

"I don't know why things are happening like this," he says through tears in a YouTube video dated March 25. "But it seems to get worse and worse every day. ... It's driving me crazy. ... I laid in bed last night and prayed that God would just let me die, you know. I'm tired of suffering, you know. I'm tired of watching my family suffer."

Matherne's wife Becky says her parents are supporting the family, now that they've lost their house. She says she and her husband have been approved for a home through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Making them pay

"It's really not like anything I've ever seen, and I've been doing this 25 years," says Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) director Marylee Orr. LEAN started receiving health complaints from Gulf workers and residents in the explosion's aftermath. The group purchased $10,000 worth of respirators (about 200) and protective gear for oil cleanup responders, but BP wouldn't allow the workers to use them, she says.

Stuart Smith, the group's attorney, argued that the Master Vessel Charter Agreement, the contract fishermen signed to participate in the Vessels of Opportunity program, didn't account for the health and safety of the workers.

Smith has served as lead counsel against more than 100 Big Oil cases and currently represents at least 1,000 clients along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida tackling BP and others involved with the Deepwater rig. His clients include the United Commercial Fisherman's Association, the Gulf Coast Charter Captain Alliance and hundreds of sick Gulf workers. (The firm is scheduled to face Transocean Ltd. - the company that owned the rig - in court in February 2012.)

"They did what they did," Smith says. "My job is make them pay for it."

Working with LEAN and Smith is a team of researchers and scientists across the Gulf Coast led by environmental scientists and toxicologists William Sawyer and Marco Kaltofen. The team has collected seafood samples for safety tests and sent blood work to Metametrix, a clinical laboratory in Duluth, Ga.

Results from one patient's volatile solvents blood screening show higher-than-average levels of ethylbenzene and xylene, two compounds present in oil. According to Metametrix, adverse effects that can follow exposure to the compounds include "brain fog," hearing loss, headache and fatigue; continued exposure to xylene can affect kidneys, lungs, the heart and the nervous system. The patient's blood work also showed the presence of hexane, 2-Methylpentane and 3-Methylpentane and isooctane - all compounds that are present in oil and gas.

LEAN also reported three divers from EcoRigs, a nonprofit marine science group, found high levels of ethylbenzene and xylene in their blood tests after diving in the Gulf near Grand Isle and the Mississippi Canyon, the site of the Deepwater rig explosion. Their symptoms include bloody stools, bleeding from the nose and eyes, nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps and dizziness.

From July to October 2010, LABB and Tulane University's Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy performed 934 health surveys of residents in Terrebonne, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes at seven survey sites. The results show three-quarters of respondents reported an increase in coughing, eye irritation, headaches and sinus irritation.

Grand Isle resident Betty Dowd, who suffers a persistent cough, says its residents need blood work "to find out what exactly is causing these problems. Whether it's BP or not, we just need to know where it's coming from."

Pointing to the health and lack of long-term studies of Exxon Valdez victims, 9/11 cleanup workers and FEMA trailer residents, LABB director Anne Rolfes says she hopes the survey results serve as a warning sign. "We don't want to be in a situation 10 years from now ... where we wish we would've done something," she says. The data should be used "not just to study people but treat their problems," she says. "We don't want to end up in 10 years with data on a bunch of dead bodies."

The report recommends the government provide better access to health care (including mental health services). Only 54 percent of respondents had health insurance, and just 31 percent sought treatment.

"The money's another situation - that'll come, the good Lord will take care of me and my family," Bayhi says. "But without your health, you don't have nothing. I just praise God every day that I'll be able to wake up and continue to watch my little girls grow up."

Hazmat suits

Many cleanup workers and coastal residents blame the dispersants and an oil-dispersant mix for their illnesses. Sprayed by planes and pumped into the Gulf, more than 1.8 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit were used to break up the oil - though the product is banned in the U.K., and in May 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency provided BP with a list of less harmful dispersants. BP stuck with Corexit.

Douglas Blanchard, a third-generation fisherman ("I got my degree on the back deck of a shrimp boat," he says), was hired to handle dispersants, but he says he wasn't allowed to use a respirator. "They never gave us no nothing to breathe, no protection," he says. "It was a bad smell - it'd burn your nose, your eyes, your throat, headaches. Take pills like they're candy, all day."

He was flown via helicopter to a medical center just south of Lake Pontchartrain, where he says he was scrubbed with soap by workers clad in hazmat suits. "Afterward, they told us it's not harmful," he says. "We made good money, but the money's not worth it."

Tate Cantrell also remembers bringing a respirator on board his boat before handling dispersants, and says he and his crew would be fired if they were caught wearing them. He says he now has trouble breathing. "It feels like an elephant on your chest all the time, like your lungs want to collapse," he says. "I made a little bit of money, but everything I have now I'm trying to sell just to stay alive."

The dispersants Cantrell and others were exposed to are a product of Nalco Company, which has several high-profile oil industry ties. ExxonMobil former president Daniel Sanders now sits on Nalco's board of directors, and its audit committee chairman, Rodney Chase, served as BP's chief executive and managing director from 1992 to 2003.

Deepwater Horizon Response, the multi-agency oil response team helmed by BP, says it halted dispersant use in July, but both residents and cleanup workers say dispersant still was being sprayed months later.

Dr. Sandler with the NIH GuLF Study says one of the aspects of the study is a look at the effects of dispersants versus the effects from oil exposure.

"I think the exposure people have had varied quite a bit, depending on where they were and when, and when things during the spill were happening," she says. "The issue is, what is the source of the chemicals in their blood, and how to interpret it? By starting with the workers, we can see who among them gets sick. It will be easier to draw conclusions, [and] we'll understand the full range. If one person gets sick, that's not a trend.

"One of the concerns people have is, if you measure someone's blood today, it does not reflect exposure they received from the oil spill, unless there are ongoing exposures. As best I know, that oil well is capped. There may be other ongoing sources of oil in the community or other things to cause the [levels of contaminants in the blood] to go up, but until you've done studies like ours, you just don't know what to make of it. But we do have concerns for these people. They need to get medical care. They need to be seen."

What puzzles Robichaux and others, however, is that many blood screenings show no sign of chemicals despite the patients' illnesses. Commercial fisher and marine toxicologist Riki Ott believes chemicals may have "parked" in fatty tissue, and other tests are necessary.

"If you go get a blood test now, it might not show any oil in your blood," she says. "It's not a clear reflection of what's in your body."

Sticking together

Ott closely studied the environmental and health effects following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, after which she wrote two books, Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Since 2004, she has helped shift oil-dependent communities to more sustainable resources. She arrived in the Gulf in May 2010.

"I witnessed the emergence of a public health epidemic," she says. "I think six million people, conservatively, were overexposed to dangerous levels of chemicals," accounting for residents along the coast and its tourists. Ott believes Gulf residents deserve long-term medical attention, an overlooked need in Alaska, where workers who cleaned up following the Exxon disaster continued to suffer long after their jobs were finished.

Sandler says the GuLF Study will examine long-term health effects and chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. She points to the 2002 Prestige disaster that spilled 20 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean off the Spanish coast. A Spanish Navy study five years later found those involved with cleanup suffered from lung and cardiovascular diseases.

"I'm very happy they want to put resources in documenting the workers' health, but that's not enough," says Orr with LEAN. "Where's someone to help them with all this?"

After the testimonies, Robichaux's patients and their families and reporters swarm him. He smiles and shakes hands before going inside the house to see his daughter before she leaves for a dance.

In private conversation, Robichaux says, "I've been working for this community for 40 years. These are my people." He sees about 60 patients, though most from a distance.

"We don't have answers," Brenda tells the audience in Raceland. "But we're trying to come together, get a really good handle on what's happening - the illnesses and all the consequences - and stand together to see what we can do to see something happen."

Clayton Matherne's wife Becky echoes Brenda. "We all need to stick together as one," she says. "Without us being a whole, we can't fight, we can't do nothing." She lowers her voice before leaving the microphone. "I hope you all aren't that sick," she says. "And our prayers go out to you if you are."

Alex Woodward is a staff writer for Gambit in New Orleans, where this story first appeared.