Deep Water Horizon Cleanup Crew Experiencing Adverse Health Effects

By: Marissa O’Loughlin

Wheezing, coughing up blood, migraines, burning eyes, and memory loss sound like side effect warnings from a pharmaceutical commercial.[1] However, for the cleanup crew exposed to oil dispersants during their valiant effort to combat the disastrous environmental effects of the world’s largest oil disaster, the meltdown of Deepwater Horizon, these are daily feelings.[2] While skeptics might argue that such health effects could be experienced as a result of exposure to the oil, researchers have isolated the effects of oil exposure from those exposed to dispersants.[3]

After the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, two dispersants which had never been used on a large scale basis, were dropped by aircraft to help dissipate oil on the water’s surface.[4] In the years after the disaster watchdog group, The Government Accountability Project, recorded symptoms reported by cleanup workers through interviews.[5] Later, a study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham revealed that one dispersant used during the Deepwater Horizon cleanup could damage human lungs.[6]

On September 15, 2017, the United States National Institutes of Health published a study on the adverse health effects, including respiratory concerns, eye irritation, and skin issues, on cleanup workers who have been exposed to oil dispersants.[7] This study collected data from over 31,000 people involved in the BP disaster response.[8] Once exposed to the dispersants, symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, as well as burning eyes, nose, throat, and lungs were reported.[9] Most workers who had suffered health issues during and after the cleanup reported a decline in such issues between one to three years later.[10] However, there are some who continue to suffer these effects over seven years later.[11]

This recent report begs the question: when faced with 172 million gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, was it ethically or environmentally responsible to use two dispersants on a large scale for the first time whose potential effects on human health and the environment were unknown?[12]


[1] Charles Digges, Report: Deepwater Horizon Dispersant Harmful to People, The Martime Executive, Sept. 25, 2017,

[2] Tristan Baurick, Dispersant used in BP oil spill sickened workers, new federal study confirms,  The Times-Picayune, Sept. 22, 2017,

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Digges, supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Craig J. McGowan, et al., Respiratory, Dermal, and Eye Irritation Symptoms Associated with Corexit™ EC9527A/EC9500A following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Findings from the Gulf Study, 125 National Institutes of Health Environmental Health Perspectives, September 15, 2017, at 9.

[8] Id.

[9] Baurick, supra note 2.

[10] Robert Preidt, After Deepwater Oil Cleanup in Gulf, Ill Effects Persist, U.S. News, Sept. 22, 2017,

[11] Id.

[12] Baurick, supra note 2.

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