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BP’s oil spill highlights the human impact of environmental crises

Thirteen years after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, those who helped clean it up are suffering from mental and physical illness. The disruption of their daily lives should disrupt ours, too. 

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unleashed an environmental catastrophe, causing irreparable damage to ecosystems and communities. A recent Guardian investigation has explored the long-term impacts of the disaster, highlighting the human devastation that still ripples thirteen years on.

BP’s oil spill was headline news for its environmental impact in 2010. But beyond the visible devastation, first responders to the scene are grappling with mental and physical health implications.

Individuals like Sam Castleberry, 59, have had to give up their full-time jobs as they battle chronic illness. Castleberry has had 18 rounds of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2020. The disease has now spread to his liver, and stops him from carrying out daily tasks.

Castleberry and 33,000 others were hailed as heroes when they rushed to the scene of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and helped clean up America’s coastlines. The spill remains the largest ever in US waters.

BP had hired workers to rake up globs of oil that had washed ashore in 2010. While the international community agonised over environmental damages, first responders were silently facing immediate health impacts, such as skin and respiratory issues.

Now, those affected are suing BP. The toxic chemicals present in the spilled oil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals, have been linked to various long-term health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurological disorders.

It’s not just physical side-effects that have uprooted these lives, either. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), first responders have been found to have increased rates of respiratory symptoms, neurological impairment, and even depression.

Witnessing environmental devastation, struggling to mitigate the consequences, and experiencing the loss of lives in affected communities were all factors in the deterioration of first-responders’ physical and psychological well-being.

The impacts are still resonating long after the oil spill itself. Medical expenses, loss of employment, and ongoing healthcare have all caused financial struggles for first responders, while a lack of support in addressing their mental health issues has caused a mounting battle to cope with the day-to-day.

Sara Sneath and Oliver Laughland have pointed out the vastly different treatment of first-responders across two American tragedies.

While the courage of the oil spill clean-up workers is comparable to the heroism of first responders during 9/11, the former have received pitiful public support.

Riki Ott, a toxicologist who now advocates for oil spill clean-up workers, said ‘What resident and professional oil spill responders do is exactly what professional firefighters and emergency responders everywhere do: put their lives on the line to protect ours’.

Coastal oil spill responders live in some of the poorest parts of America, and have been left to cope with the aftermath of the event by themselves. By contrast, those on the frontline of 9/11 have been rightly cemented into public memory.

The reasons for this disparity aren’t entirely clear, but they highlight how tragedies are viewed by the global public.

9/11 was undoubtedly a human tragedy, but the disastrous consequences of the BP oil spill are still largely viewed in environmental terms.

While the impact on the climate is unfathomable, this event irrevocably reframed the lives of those immediately involved. It’s vital we stop separating the two.

Removing the human from the environmental is a fundamental reason so many of us struggle to identify with the climate emergency. It’s a degree of separation that prevents impactful change.

Looking back at the BP Oil Spill through the eyes’ of its first responders highlights the need for broader conversations around occupational hazards and our approach to natural disaster.

From an institutional standpoint, governments, regulatory bodies, and corporations must acknowledge the hazards of oil spills and provide adequate safety protocols, training, and protective gear to all first responders.

Comprehensive and long-term health monitoring programs would also ensure the long-term well-being of first responders long after tragedy has occurred.

And ultimately, we need increased public awareness. Media outlets, educational institutions, and community organisations should work together to raise awareness and advocate for social change around human involvement in the aftermaths of man-made disaster.

This collective understanding will not only mobilise resources to help those immediately affected, but will begin to solidify the bridge between humans and our natural environment. It’s only then that we can begin to fight the climate emergency and take on large corporations like BP with real impact.

Afterall, when we grasp how the destruction of the planet directly destroys our lives, we recognise nature as our only home – and the only one worth fighting for.