Christine Millner, Environmental Scientist with CTEH (Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health) collects water and air samples from the Gulf of Mexico waters off Shell Beach, LA. (photo: BP America via flickr Creative Commons)

CTEH is the company contracted by BP to monitor air levels as they related to recovery worker safety in the Gulf of Mexico. The firm, which has a sordid history of covering up corporate environmental disasters, just released new data with BP yesterday that shows disturbing levels of toxic dispersants in 20% of offshore recovery workers and 15% of near-shore workers. But these just aren’t any toxic dispersants. It’s the same chemical blamed for chronic health problems in Exxon Valdez recovery workers that is now poisoning at least one-fifth of BP’s offshore recovery workers. Elana Schor reports for Greenwire:

In an under-the-radar release of new test results for its Gulf of Mexico oil spill workers, BP PLC is reporting potentially hazardous exposures to a now-discontinued dispersant chemical — a substance blamed for contributing to chronic health problems after the Exxon Valdez cleanup — among more than 20 percent of offshore responders. [...]

The new BP summary, including results up to June 29, show a broad majority of workers testing below exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

But the Valdez-linked chemical 2-butoxyethanol was detected at levels up to 10 parts per million (ppm) in more than 20 percent of offshore responders and 15 percent of those near shore. The NIOSH standard for 2-butoxyethanol, which lacks the force of law but is considered more health-protective than the higher OSHA limit, is 5 ppm.

Data from Louisiana Office of Public Health compiled by Firedoglake shows that almost half of workers reporting illnesses were working offshore. Their symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting, sore throat, coughing, shortness of breath, and irritation of the nose and eyes - symptoms consistent with of exposure to 2-butoxyethanol.

Of course, while CTEH and BP included the health limits for every other chemical they measured, they conveniently forgot to include that helpful information for its measurements for 2-butoxyethanol.

OSHA’s standard for exposure to this toxic chemical is 50 parts per million for a 40-hour work week, while NIOSH, part of the CDC, suggests a toxicity limit of just 5 parts per million.  CTEH and BP’s data showed 20% of offshore workers and 15% of near-shore workers had levels of this toxic chemical at 10 parts per million.

When I spoke with Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Jordan Barab, earlier this week, Barab told me that OSHA hasn’t ”found anything approaching the minimum levels” of toxic components of dispersants for the “most of up to date limits.” I asked the Department of Labor to clarify this morning if this included 2-butoxyethanol, but have not yet received a response.

The danger with OSHA’s level is that it is based on a work week – however, many recovery workers, particularly those working offshore, are around the toxic chemicals almost 24/7. Workers on boats, rigs drilling relief wells, and others miles off shore have constant exposure. Many others who aren’t deep offshore still live and work near or on the water, and have near constant exposure to toxic chemicals in the air for more than 40 hours per week.

But OSHA isn’t responsible for offshore workers. The agency’s jurisdiction ends 3 miles offshore, far away from the offshore workers most affected by exposure to dispersants. OSHA tells me that NIOSH is observing and monitoring offshore, with the Coast Guard in charge of enforcement. But CTEH apparently has primary responsibility for worker safety monitoring data offshore.

So what’s next? It seems to be that CTEH and BP’s exclusion of toxic limits for 2-butoxyethanol is an omission consistent with CTEH’s track record of covering up for corporate disasters. It’s clear that this toxic chemical that caused so much pain for Exxon Valdez recovery workers needs to be taken with the utmost concern by the federal government. Levels of this chemical need to be considered in any health and safety protections for recovery workers, including respirators, at NIOSH’s limits. There also needs to be a government agency officially charged with protecting the safety of offshore workers that doesn’t rely on CTEH. There’s no reason to do anything less when the health and safety of recovery workers are at stake.

Finally, CTEH’s data has been long in coming; while CTEH claims to send data to the government on a daily basis, this is the first public release of data since early June. The government needs to whip BP and CTEH in line to provide real time information about toxicity in order to do everything possibly to protect recovery workers. If that means CTEH needs to go, then they need to go.