Long Term Health Risks Concern for Spill Workers

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Garry Stubblefield talks with Dr. Jon LaPook about the long term health problems he's faced since working on the Exxon Valdez clean-up.
CBS
It could take months or years to clean up the Gulf oil spill and there are many concerns about the health and safety of the people doing the clean-up. There are 47,000 currently on the job. In this CBS News exclusive report, Dr. Jon LaPook speaks to a former Exxon Valdez clean-up worker whose life and health have been forever scarred.

Garry Stubblefield wheezes, gets shorts of breath, can't complete sentences. His breath has literally been taken away by an encounter with oil 20 years ago.

He was the ultimate Alaska outdoorsman. He hunted, fished and even lassoed cattle.

"There wasn't anything I didn't think I could do. Hunting, fishing, fish the rivers," says Stubblefield.

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After the Exxon Valdez spill, Stubblefield, a former green beret, worked on a barge that sprayed hot water onto the oily shores. He was given no protective gear. Early on he got sick.

"I went to their first aid station that they have where your rooms are and I was told it was like a flu bug," says Stubblefield. "So they would give you antibiotics and tell you you're fine."

His breathing only got worse and his once-sharp mind began to fail.

"I couldn't think and follow things," he says. "The doctor said it was the oxygen I wasn't getting to my head."

Doctors concluded Stubblefield suffered "severe and permanent injury involving both his brain and his respiratory system."

"My brother will die younger now because of this lifetime with the breathing and the toxic poison," says Stubblefield's sister Barbara Reed.

Following the spill Exxon funded more than 350 environmental studies. The number of human studies: zero. Thousands of clean-up workers complained about breathing problems they called the "Valdez crud," but there was no organized monitoring.

Stubblefield battled Exxon for years before reaching a settlement, says his lawyer Dennis Mestas. "It was just a sort of a black hole where medical records were withheld, industry hygiene records were withheld," says Mestas. "No federal or state health authorities were looking at either one of those things and the workers were essentially abandoned to their fate."

The health effects of oil spills have been largely ignored. There have been more than 400 tanker spills since 1960 but just seven have been studied for their impact on people.

"One of the important things about the Gulf oil incident that's occurring now is that we want to make sure that we structure a longer term study so that we can fill that gap," says Dr. John Howard, the head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The most extensive follow-up was after a 2002 accident that dumped 70,000 tons of fuel oil off the coast of Spain. Studies of clean-up workers found respiratory problems that persisted one to two years after exposure. Also, there were hormonal changes and psychological trauma. And there was damage to DNA which can increase cancer risk.

Stubblefield says, "You work around this oil, you're going to have health problems."

The U.S. government has promised to track the health of the Gulf workers for years to come.

Workers in the Gulf are being protective gear. Depending on what they're exposed to, a worker will be given if a respirator if he's exposed to toxic fumes. If they're somewhere that the EPA has found that the air is safe, a respirator may do more harm than good. Workers exposed to oil right on the skin will have access to personal protective gear.