In the 38 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and killed 11 workers, nearly 40 million gallons of toxic crude have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil slick now equals the size of South Carolina and has soiled more than 100 miles of Louisiana’s coastline. Hundreds of birds, sea turtles, and dolphins have died, thousands of fishermen have lost their livelihoods, and local economies are devastated. The magnitude of this spill, now the largest ever off of U.S. shores, has spread so far that we’re beginning to notice broader effects on the public’s health.

BP alone doesn’t have the manpower to clean up the mess it created, so fishermen who can no longer fish have been helping with these efforts along side Gulf coast residents and volunteers. They’ve helped set up floating booms and clean up beaches in an effort to protect their way of life and now they are becoming ill after working long hours near waters fouled with oil and chemicals that are known to be hazardous to human health. It’s gotten so bad that last week the Unified Command recalled vessels operating in Breton Sound after crew members reported experiencing dizziness, nausea, headaches and chest pains. Previous oil spills have shown that more serious health problems with clean-up workers may arise over time.

According to press reports BP failed to provide fishermen with any protective equipment. Instead they wore leather boots and regular clothes on the boat to work the spill. When asked what BP told them, one fisherman responded: “They (the BP officials) told us if we ran into oil, it wasn’t supposed to bother us.” Quite frankly, it is an outrage that BP, which made about $16 billion in profits last year, has such a terrible record on safety – for the drilling itself and for the workers trying to clean up the mess.

That’s why we sent a letter to BP’s president and CEO urging him to take the necessary steps that he is apparently not doing already to ensure the health and safety of the workers and volunteers cleaning up this giant mess. We also asked him to take steps to continue surveillance of workers’ health and monitoring of environmental conditions and air quality. BP must use the data collected to inform a public education campaign about associated risks and symptoms of extended exposure to these hazards.

We are considering congressional hearings on this topic as well and will continue to hold BP accountable for the full spectrum of side effects of this disaster. Responders to BP’s oil spill, including workers, volunteers and local residents should not be choosing to save the life of the Gulf region while putting their own at risk. The Gulf oil spill has already caused enough economic and environmental damage to the Gulf Coast we must do all that we can to protect human health from any potential long-term effects.