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This blog is quick to condemn technological solutions on little data.  Diaries on the inadequacy of science and engineering abound (ironic, since we all are using computers to reach the internet).  Folks are quick to jump to conspiracy theories.  The problems of the oil spill are bad, but to read Daily Kos, the horrors are incredible, often in contradiction to all logic.  Chiming in to doubt some of these claims has resulted in

What the hell, dude? You sounded earlier as if you were defending BP, and there's shitloads of anecdotal AND empirical evidence that they're in no way worthy of it. There's a point where you just have to stop playing "devils advocate" or "supporting the underdog". Or whatever that earlier bit was. Truthfully, it didn't make a whole lot of sense in context with the rest of the discussion, but seemed more designed to introduce the idea that "the fumes just aren't that bad, so people really didn't need masks anyway....
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I am not defending BP.  They did bad science and bad engineering and frankly bad management.  No defense of BP here.  I wrote the first diary on the sinking of this rig and breaking of this well link  There I commented that this was likely to be the worst environmental disaster in 30 years.  

We need to use some data and not jump to some conspiracy fueled theory that gets transmorgified to data because someone here wrote a recommended diary.  Scientific data exists to support some of the decisions being made on the Gulf, and not every decision being made is bad.

Myth 1: Dispersants are dangerous and are making the problem worse.  We could clean up the oil spill better without them.  BP is just using them because they want to hide the problem.  http://themoderatevoice.com/...

Data: NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) called together a panel of 50 experts to review the use of dispersants and the federal guidelines for BP to continue using them.  Conclusion of the panel is that the dispersants, although containing toxic chemicals for ocean microorganisms, are needed to reduce harm to the fragile marshland ecosystems which are harder to restore.  

Panel member Ron Tjeerdema said Friday they decided the animals harmed by the chemicals underwater had a better chance of rebounding quickly than birds and mammals on the shoreline. Tjeerdema chairs the Department of Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Davis.
link.

To me this just makes sense- smaller globules will chemically and microbiologically break down faster than acres of thick goo.  Big thick globs will coat the marshes and be much harder to clean up.  BP is paying a lot of money for the dispersants and making their use public.  And the problem isn't all that easy to hide.  

Reality Check: the panel could be wrong.  But crises call for decisions and failure to decide is also a decision to do nothing.

Myth 2.  Dispersants and/or oil fumes are making people working on the gulf very sick.  Seven workers were sickened and this is another neglected crisis like 9/11.  BP is refusing to let people show up with respirators and BP suggested the workers might have food poisoning.  There is also a controversy over respirator use.
Reality:  The actual story was much more nuanced when you read the full reporting.  AP stories are often cut off in the shortened form.    

On Friday May 27, seven workers were hospitalized with symptoms that could be linked to exposure to solvents such as Corexit and the oil (dizziness, headaches, nausea).  They were also reported to have rashes, weakness and coughs.  These workers were operating an oil skimmer from Breton Sound with another group of 125 boats.
 

On Monday, shrimper Clint Guidry said fisherman workers had told him that they were not being given respirators — not even those working in the most dangerous area closest to the well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  BP spokesman Darren Beaudo denied the allegation. He said respirators were issued to crews of all boats working "source control" close to the well, and crews were trained to use them if necessary.  However, he said constant air quality monitoring by boats in that area and on wearable "badges" worn by supervisors on boats in areas judged the most dangerous generally found safe levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds.  Repeated tests showed respirators weren't needed for crews working to clean oil or lay boom closer to shore, Beaudo said.

"Folks working those crews are not expected or trained to work in circumstances that would require respirators. If they were in that sort of situation they would be removed immediately," Beaudo said.  Guidry also alleged that "when some individuals brought their own respirators, they were told by BP representatives on site that if they wore the respirators they would be released from the job."  Beaudo responded: "I'm not aware that that has happened. It would be contradictory to our approach to safety."  He said anyone would be free to use a mask meeting OSHA specifications.
Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said there was not enough air quality monitoring being done by state and federal agencies. She said her group planned to start collecting air samples of its own in the spill zone beginning Thursday.
"We're putting these people out there as canaries in the coal mine," she said.

Reality: Washington Post also wrote about health related issues, with HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius writing to BP to take responsibility for the workplace safety and health of cleanup workers.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/...   “The Environmental Protection Agency had tested more than 15,000 air samples from Venice, La., to Pensacola, Fla., and had not yet detected dangerous substances at hazardous levels, she said. More than 500 water and soil samples have also been tested, she said.”  

Apparently, BP is monitoring the air quality and so are other agencies and groups from the federal government and now environmental groups.   Obviously we should not have BP monitoring alone- but this sort of monitoring is expensive.  Who should pay?  How does this sort of air quality monitoring work?  

The EPA is testing the air tested for volatiles like Total VOCs, hydrogen sulfide, benzene and naphthalene which evaporate and escape from oil.  EPA is measuring these from a variety of locations in Louisiana on the shore, but not out in the middle of the ocean, where these folks are exposed.   Of the pollutants EPA is testing for, the Total VOCs, hydrogen sulfide, benzene and naphthalene are the most worrisome for the health of communities living and working in the areas near the monitors.  EPA is providing daily summaries of their monitoring data at various locations for PM, Total VOCs and hydrogen sulfide. They are also providing some limited data on specific VOCs (such as benzene) and some semi-volatile chemicals such as naphthalene.  

There is a nice summary in Huffington Post on May 24 discussing these chemicals and safe exposure levels written by Natural Resources Defense Council scientist, Gina Solomon.  She notes that the recommended exposure levels seem too high for conservative safety.  These are maximum safe limits developed by NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health).  NIOSH actually recommends lower levels for better safety- about half the level of Benzene for example, in line with Solomon’s recommendations, and NIOSH are the ones who established the standards.  BP is also monitoring chemicals evaporating from the oil closer to the spill.    

NIOSH was started in 1970 as the research arm of regulatory agencies like OSHA and EPA.  The goal of NIOSH is to reduce workplace risk by establishing health standards and making recommendations for tolerable levels.  NIOSH is part of the CDC, which focuses on epidemiology of all sorts.   Many believe NIOSH should really be part of NIH rather than CDC and Homeland Security.  One example of NIOSH at work was the follow up studies on the World Trade Center Cleanup and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  NIOSH sends their data to other agencies so they can set good surer exposure standards for other agencies.  NIOSH also works on educational programs and certifies safety equipment like respirators.
EPA measures the volatile chemicals (VOCs) using an instrument called a TO-15.  A TO-15 is a machine that measures the air quality by sucking a sample of the air into a canister and then taken to a lab for analysis. The TO-15 doesn’t require calibration isn't required and has an internal quality control system.    

One company that does this kind of testing is Columbia Analytical Services http://www.caslab.com/....  Here is their discussion about a TO-15 (caution- pdf) http://www.caslab.com/....  Here is a compendium of EPA methods for conducting these tests.  EPA certifies the method and outside independent labs are to follow the tests (standard methods) so data can be reliably compared between labs.   http://www.epa.gov/...   Why mention this?  Because it is clear this is time-consuming and not responsive to immediate problems.  Someone could get an exposure and you wouldn’t hear for some few days about the problem, when canisters need to be sent to outside labs.   Accurate but slow may be sufficient for monitoring chronic exposure, but won’t be very effective for acute exposure.  Acute exposure would come from someone getting a big dose of the benzene, rather than a little every day.  Acute doses kill you quickly and chronic doses may kill some of you in 20 years, so it is hard to collect this data effectively.  However, we have people working in refineries, chemical plants and oil rigs for many years, so there is some collective information on this for chronic exposure.  

So should people be wearing respirators?  

What about the dispersants?  Reducing exposure is recommended, and this is difficult, since they are spraying this stuff on the surface.   NIOSH has made some specific recommendations for this work as well.  BP is using the dispersants under the ocean, which is very controversial.  That said,
To prevent harmful respiratory and dermal health effects NIOSH recommends reducing worker exposures to 2-butoxyethanol, petroleum distillates and similar cleaning agents in dispersants. Workers can be protected by taking the following steps:
• Mix and load dispersants in well ventilated areas.
• Use automated spraying systems to apply dispersants when available.
• Remain upwind of the mists that are generated if spray systems are manned.
• Wear nitrile gloves during mixing, loading, or spraying of dispersants to prevent skin irritation.
• Wear protective eyewear when mixing, loading, or spraying dispersants.
• Wash hands and any other body parts exposed to dispersants thoroughly with soap and water.
• If personal air monitoring indicates the above steps are not effective at reducing exposures below applicable OELs, then respiratory protection would be needed. Respirators should be used as part of a comprehensive respiratory protection program that includes proper selection, training, and maintenance.  The NIOSH respirator topic page at http://www.cdc.gov/... provides information for safety and health officers who are designated to establish and conduct such programs.

So what are these personal air monitors and how good are they?  Should everyone be issued one?  I found one supplier; 3M sells something for measuring “organic vapors” by absorbing them onto a single charcoal sorbent wafer for collecting organic vapors.  http://solutions.3m.com/...
They have accuracy of +/-25% at a 95% confidence level for many workplace contaminants. For all these samples they are sent back to someone for analysis- and it isn’t clear to me if you get a mixed organic reading or if they tell you about specific solvents you are exposed to.  So you can use these monitors but again, you are not getting an immediate safety response.  Chronic levels of volatiles are very small, and it takes very sensitive, expensive equipment to measure this accurately.  Cheaper widespread measurements are not very accurate but would give you a baseline of low-level chronic exposure.    
I used to wear a radiation badge at work and they would collect them every months and then one day they would call and let you know you exposed yourself 3 months earlier.  Hard to connect actions with results for safety- but these were low levels of exposure if you were carefully trained and worked safely.  Once in a while someone would lose their badge and it would get exposure when you weren’t there.  This was poor effort, but people screwed up.  They made us go to radiation safety training for 2 weeks one summer and I really learned a lot.  I think safety training is essential for these projects, as well as more accurate, fast turnaround on the monitoring.  More measurements out on the actual gulf would also be critical to improve the situation.  But it doesn’t sound like BP is signing contracts with the boats to go out and collect oil and respond to the crisis.  It doesn’t sound like people are being issued safety equipment as contractors- but the government is putting recommendations out there for people to use.      

So the response here is, how much VOC do you need before you issue respirators to people?  This should seem easy to the really cautious.  Just give everyone a respirator and everyone will be safer, right?  Better safe than sorry, you might say.”

Actually, not.  Respirators are not comfortable and need to be fitted carefully to provide protection.   Respirators are the last choice for protection of employees from solvents, only after other possible methods are found not feasible.   It is essential to use the correct respirator type- Paper masks do not protect against solvents – the vapors go right through them.   The type of respirator needed depends on the toxicity and amount of solvent vapor in the air- so these measurements of levels of toxins are as important as figuring out how much oil is actually erupting out in order to figure out how to clean it up.   I have to agree with the BP folks- if there are acute exposure levels, you shouldn’t be out there on a boat with a respirator to clean things up.   If the oil is volatilizing toxins to an acute level, in the outdoors, then something is happening that is very unusual.  I am not cutting them any slack by saying this- I actually think it is very unlikely people will experience acute exposure.  But respirators can reduce some chronic exposure.  
   They can leak, wear out, or be the wrong kind.
   They can be hot, uncomfortable and make it hard to see or communicate.  If you are wearing one, how can people hear you easily?  
   They can be hard to breathe through.
   People may remove them in contaminated air.
   False sense of security.

So you decide you still need a respirator- what works for solvents?  There are 4 general types:
   Air-purifying half-face respirator.  Solvent is captured on an activated charcoal cartridge.
   Air purifying full face respirator- similar to half-face except it covers your eyes to protect them from irritation.
   Powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) Air is pulled through the cartridges by a battery operated fan, which reduces effort to pull a breath through the filter.
   Air-line Respirator.  Fresh air is supplied by a hose from a compressor- this is usually used for confined space work and high levels of toxins.  This is what you wear when you go in a small space to clean the chemicals out- think scuba gear.  This would NOT be practical on a boat.  

Respirators need to be fitted- beards can be a problem.   The act of breathing in through the filter creates a negative pressure inside the mask, and then you breath the used air out the front of the mask- which gives you a bug appearance.   If the mask does not fit properly along the edges, contaminated air can enter.  There are tests with special scented materials that show if the respirator is properly fitted.  Only “Organic vapor” cartridges capture solvent vapors.  The cartridges don’t work for all solvents (including methanol and methylene chloride).  The cartridges should be changed according to manufacturer’s instructions, since they only absorb only so much solvent until breakthrough occurs.  If you use a respirator improperly, you can feel safe and still be at risk.

There are genuine problems with collecting the data to to assess the acute and chronic risks to workers of the VOCs on a day to day basis.   More data is required from out on the boats, and better turnaround is required to get data back to people affected AND decision makers.  
Right now, if you add a precaution like a respirator when all available data says it isn’t necessary, you will get noncompliance with other, more necessary safety rules.  It is far more important to keep the oil off of people’s skin- that is why folks are wearing light-weight suits out of a material like Tyvek and use nitrile not laytex gloves and clean up with soap after work.   These ARE appropriate personal protective equipment for the more serious exposure problem.

So how big a canary are the sick cleanup workers?  Well, according to NPR, surprisingly healthy, considering there are 20,000 workers and 11 have been reported sick.  http://m.npr.org/... It is 95 degrees and humid.  They are stressed and working hard, and all this could contribute to ill health.  One report I encountered suggested that the 7 workers were burning oil and this may have contributed to their symptoms.  http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/...  And folks from the Exxon Valdez did not have many lasting health problems from the cleanup
It is very important to based epidemiology on statistically valid large data sets, and the quality data is collected carefully and right away.

Myth 3 Oil Plumes are mysteriously appearing deep under the sea.  BP claims these are a myth.

Data.  Oops.  This one is building up data very rapidly.  University of South Florida, which had chemical oceanographers who early on ideantified the plumes, have confirmed the presence of oil plumes.  Today they reported laboratory tests confirming oil has accumulated in at least two extensive plumes deep underwater.  These tests confirmed their initial findings, which were based on field instruments.  They will follow up with more information on Monday.

Observations http://www.nola.com/... from three different teams of researchers http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/... over the last few weeks identifying several large oil plumes in the Gulf, each miles wide and hundreds or thousands of feet deep. The plumes contain tiny droplets of oil — from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a golf ball, the Washington Post reported — that has dissolved into the water, perhaps due to the effect of chemical dispersants.

The government posted a map this week showing the location of one of the underwater plumes, according to the New York Times Wednesday http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/.... “This would seem to be the most detailed confirmation yet by a federal agency that the undersea plumes are real,” reported the Times.

http://www.pbs.org/...
USF and NOAA planned to issue a more full report on their findings about the oil plumes Monday.

"We're certain it's oil,'' said Ernst B. Peebles, a USF biological oceanographer and chief scientist aboard the college's Weatherbird II research vessel, the ship that did the sampling. "We've done the analysis.''

Peebles said laboratory tests were performed on water drawn from two layers of oil, a 98-foot thick layer found about 1,300 feet down and a second, even thicker layer found at a depth of about 3,200 feet.

The tests were performed on water brought up by collection bottles and passed through filter pads, a web of glass fibers that trap tiny particles in water.

http://www.nwfdailynews.com/...

Plumes can explain where the larger amounts of oil are showing up.

What will be the effects of the plumes?  This isn't yet known, but speculation is not good for aquatic organisms like fish, shrimp, plankton.  They are not getting lots of indications that this has happened yet, but herring still hasn't recovered from exposure to oil from the Exxon Valdez.  

One myth- Jane Lubchenco of NOAA was conspiring with BP to cast doubt on the existance of plumes.  This was suggested here, and this is NOT confirmed by the presence of NOAA scientists with the USF scientists are these press conferences.  Below is the controversial report:

There isn’t enough confirmed and validated data to say whether there is oil flowing undetected underwater from the Deepwater Horizon leak, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco told a group of scientists Thursday in Baton Rouge.

That’s something NOAA scientists and others are still analyzing and investigating, she said.

“If oil is below the surface, where it is and in what amounts,” Lubchenco said. “The water samples are currently being analyzed.”

Lubchenco said she wanted to emphasize that the reality of what’s going on with the oil leak is grim enough without jumping to conclusions before verifying data is collected in the scientific response to the leak.

http://www.2theadvocate.com/...

Myth 4 Booming is ineffective to protect the shore from oil.

Data:  Alas, this is not a myth.  F***ing booming needs to be tended and is not doing much good.  Fishgrease was right.  Boom is good but it can be defeated by waves, bad placement and oil/water emulsions.

Summary:  

I am not some sort of BP Pollyanna or Obamabot with blinders on.  I am a commonsense, critical thinking scientist reading all sides of the data and trying to get to the truth.  The angry overblown response, often directed at the fairly competant Obama bureaucrats, is not particularly helpful for me.  Neither is the slamming and name calling from folks here when someone questions a theory presented as conclusion.  I think a little critical thinking and diversity of opinion doesn't constitute here.  

This is a disaster for the environment.  We still need to document what is going on and to look critically at the data and the reports.  National Science foundation is doing a good job by changing their research awarding system to allow rapid response grants to explore problems like the Iceland volcano and this oil disaster.   It is important to see what happens to these microorganisms and zooplankton and to explore new solutions like oil eating microbes.   http://www.nsf.gov/...

Watching Rachel Maddow this evening, I listened to a woman, Riki Ott, telling all people to wear respirators on the Gulf Coast.  Riki Ott came to different conclusions about human health problems after Exxon Valdez than did NIOSH.  Was NIOSH wrong or was Ott?  I don't know.  But I think if the air is so bad you need a respirator, you shouldn't be breathing it at all, not worrying about a respirator.  

I believe data should be collected objectively for human health exposure, so that we aren't asking these questions in 20 years.  This is a bad situation and it won't be made better by bad science (little data, lots of speculation).  Good science collects data and works to remain objective.  All the sceptical opinions I expressed here will be altered when someone brings some data to the table.  And be a little more respectful of motivations when people like me question the data- we aren't all BP flacks.  

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Originally posted to murrayewv on Fri Jun 04, 2010 at 07:20 PM PDT.

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