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'Oil Disaster' Special

Aired June 5, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good morning, guys. I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We are live in New Orleans.

You know, you've been looking at these images now for sometime on TV, for more than a month. But imagine living here. That's what we really want to talk about today.

The economic impact -- some of these jobs are going to never come back, we hear; and the physical and mental toll as well. Five years after Katrina -- remember that -- how will they cope here?

Also, a shrimper's wife. Her name is Kindra. She was one of the first to speak out about the health impact of this oil disaster as well. She's going to join us live on the show today.

And, should we be concerned about the seafood we're getting? That's a question we get over and over again.

We're live in the Gulf. Let's get started.


GUPTA: We begin, though, with the people hardest hit: the fishermen. They can no longer fish because the oil is everywhere now. They're trying to clean it up and some of them are getting sick.

Imagine that. These are the guys that run toward the problem when everyone else is running away. These fishermen often were too scared to come forward with their stories, fearing that they might lose the only job they know have.

But one fisherman has broken the silence. Listen to what he told me, not far from New Orleans, in Venice, Louisiana.


GUPTA (voice-over): Cooper is a third generation shrimper. But for more than a month now, he's been on the water cleaning up oil.

(on camera): Tell me again. If someone breathes in some of this stuff, even at the time they're breathing it in, just at that time, what does it feel like and what do they experience?

ACY COOPER, V.P., LOUISIANA SHRIMP ASSN.: You're going to get a headache, a severe headache. And then probably rapid heart beat.

GUPTA (voice-over): Acy didn't want to have this interview, but he felt compelled to break his silence.

(on camera): You may the first to actually speak on this to us. Why are you talking us?

COOPER: We need a voice. Somebody has to speak out, and if it has to be me, well, it has to be me.

GUPTA (voice-over): BP required all these cleanup workers, fishermen and others, who mainly make a living from the Gulf, sign a nondisclosure form. Acy could lose this cleanup job, his only source of income, but he doesn't care anymore. He's worried.

COOPER: You know, it's anybody. This is our friends and families out here.

GUPTA (on camera): What he's talking about is breathing in crude oil or petroleum. It's a hydrocarbon -- carbon as the energy source surrounded by a bunch of hydrogen molecules. It gets refined into things that you may know better, gasoline, for example. Diesel fuel down here. Propane.

Now, when you breathe it in, all sorts of things can happen. Someone, they feel nauseated. They may have vomiting. They may have headache.

Now, what this does is suppressed the nervous system for a period of time. Someone can feel drunk. Sort of anaesthetize.

But here's the thing: Take a deep breathe in of fresh air, simply get off the boat, a lot of those symptoms should go away.

Does the oil, the dispersant combination, everything that we've been talking about does pose a problem to him in health?

RIKI OTT, OIL POLLUTION EXPERT: Absolutely yes. Unconditionally, yes.

GUPTA (voice-over): Riki Ott is a PhD oil pollution expert who's worked with families affected by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

(on camera): And you, literally -- you breathe the stuff in and it cause, you know, even suppress your central nervous system for a period of time. From what they tell me then is you literally turn your head, you take a breath of fresh air, you get off the boat, it goes away. It should fine. The short term is all there is.

Is that true?

OTT: What happened was: people went home and they thought they'd get better at the end of the cleanup in September. They didn't. And I am still dealing with workers now 21 years later who have this persistent immune system suppression, so they're kind of sick all the time, respiratory problem, brain fog, dizziness.

GUPTA: I checked myself. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health did report an increase in respiratory problems among Valdez cleanup workers. And a 2003 survey done by a Yale grad student found Valdez cleanup workers who had the most exposure to oil and chemicals reported conditions of chronic airway disease and neurological impairment over a decade later.

(on camera): How bad does this get? I mean, how -- what's the worse-case scenario here? I mean, you have all these, again, friend of yours, colleagues, people you have known, breathing this stuff in. And you're reading the papers right here with me.

Let me read you this. It says -- we're talking about just the oil now. The volatile organic compounds among the most toxic components, many associated with long-term health defects, some of them carcinogens, meaning, they cause cancer.

COOPER: Correct. Why have -- why we don't have the right -- adequate protection? That's what I want to know.

GUPTA: I can see -- I mean, this -- I mean, you are really personally affected by this. I can tell in the couple of minutes that I'm talking to you.


GUPTA: I mean, what is -- what is -- are you sleeping well? I mean, how's your life been?

COOPER: I have two sons out there working. I want to see them grow up.

Sure, it's personal, very personal. It hurts you.


GUPTA: Now, I tell you, regarding that nondisclosure agreement, BP has said it publicly, it's not going to hold workers like Acy Cooper to that nondisclosure gag clause but Acy and others -- they still say that, look, they signed a contract and they haven't seen anything in writing from BP allowing them to talk.

Now, we did talk to BP. Here, specifically, what they're telling us. They say there's been a great deal of attention in the press about whether BP was providing respiratory protection with particular emphasis on boat crews. Their data shows that airborne contaminants are well within safe limits.

Now, I tell you, very few people had access like our own Kyra Phillips to some of these images that you've been watching for so long.

Kyra, thanks for joining us. You saw that piece. You heard what Mr. Cooper said.

The nausea, the vomiting, a lot of those symptoms for a lot of people go away I think if they just simply get a breath of fresh air. But for some people, they stay. When you were that close -- did you experience anything? KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's interesting. As you know, we got unprecedented access to the rigs. I actually got to meet the workers, talk to the workers, see what they were doing firsthand there, to try to cap this gusher.

But here's what's interesting. We were coming in on a helo. We're about 10 minutes out, and Admiral Thad Allen said, oh, you're going to -- you're going to get a huge, you know, waft of air and you're going to smell the oil.

And sure enough, it just came through the halo. Whoa. It's a really strong -- the fumes were so strong. It was like fresh tar.

And then when we landed on the rig, and I got to spend some time with the workers and see the operations, I noticed off the side of the rig, these vessels that were spraying water. And I said, what's going on? I said the workers, what's going on? What is this?

GUPTA: On to the oil?

PHILLIPS: Yes, on to the oil, close to the Enterprise. But they were actually coming around and spraying near all the vessels and I asked the workers -- what -- what's going on? Safety precaution -- they're spraying water on the oil to try to bring down the toxic fumes.

GUPTA: Those volatile, organic compounds everyone is talking about.

PHILLIPS: Exactly.

GUPTA: Did they give you a mask?

PHILLIPS: No. They didn't.

GUPTA: And I know the admiral in all the pictures I've seen was not wearing a mask either. There's been a lot of concern about that and people have said, look, a lot of the relief -- or the rescue workers or cleanup workers were not given masks. Did you see people wearing masks?

PHILLIPS: I actually didn't. And I couldn't see -- you know, to be fully transparent, I couldn't see the workers on the vessel spraying the water, but with regard to the workers I was with on the rig, they weren't wearing masks.

But as soon as we got on, we had to go straight to a safety video, watch a safety video. And when you're on the rig, you got to wear gloves, no jewelry, no watches, no earrings. You had to wear a hard hat, safety glasses.

And I did ask them about the air that they're breathing and at least the workers that I was with -- with whom I was with -- said that they haven't experienced any illness.

GUPTA: Did you ask Admiral Allen at all about safety precautions like protective gear or mask?

PHILLIPS: Masks, no. But he made it very clear once we landed on the rig the first thing to do is we had to see a safety video.

GUPTA: You know, it's so interesting because I was talking to some folks who worked in Valdez and they said, a lot of times, the company, in this case, BP, won't provide masks because it acknowledges there might be a health risk and if there is and they have to pay for some of these problems later on. Who knows what's really going on?

That's fascinating stuff. And I know you're sticking around as well.

Kyra, I mean, I've been walking around town talking to lots of people and I can tell you that it's had a huge mental impact on people here. I sat down and talked to a bunch of wives of fishermen, for example. And there's this free clinic called the project, it's a free clinic for mental health services.

I'll give you a chance to meet this women and understand what's they're going through right after the break. Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back live with SGMD.

You know, when people think about southern Louisiana, they still can't get some of these images out of their head -- Hurricane Katrina, five years ago. I saw it firsthand, as well, and reporting about desperate patients trying to get out of charity hospital. You know, as devastating as that was, a lot of people feel that what's happening right now is in some ways worse that many of the mental health resources diminished after Katrina because doctors left, a lot of clinics shut down.

But at the same time, the needs for these sorts of services started to increase and when all that happened here in the last month, with everything that's going on, the increase in demand for those mental health resources -- well, it's back again.

Now, the Saint Bernard Project, it's a free mental health clinic that's set up right after Katrina. Take a look as we travel from New Orleans down to Chalmette in Saint Bernard Parish and really saw what's happening there.


GUPTA (voice-over): That's Rachel. And that's Yvonne. They're both wives of fishermen who are now cleanup workers.

YVONNE LANDRY, FISHERMAN'S WIFE: Our last trip was May 15th crabbing, and my husband tells me because he was coming back, because I loved to ride and look. And he tells me, take a good look around, he said, because this is going to be all gone. No more boat rides like this.

I'm not going the lie. I went to crying like a baby.

RACHEL MORRIS, FISHERMAN'S WIFE: We don't know when it's going to come back. We don't know how long. I don't know if my children are going to be able to be fishermen.

LANDRY: I know mine won't.

MORRIS: My husband is a fourth generation fisherman. That's all we know. What do we do? Where do we go from here?

GUPTA (on camera): How do you best describe the emotion? Are you frustrated? Are you angry? Are you depressed? How do you feel?

MORRIS: I'm very depressed because of the way my husband comes home, the way he feels every day. I am very angry because they're not doing what they can.

I'm very upset with the environmental aspect of it because the dispersant they're putting out, Britain banned it because they know how bad it is for their wildlife and communities. Why are we using it? Why are you able to use it on us?

LANDRY: Before the spill, we were running traps side by side and by talking and eating lunch. It was one big family.

MORRIS: I know that for me it is going to be OK, but for him, it's killing him inside. It's to the point now where he won't even come to me anymore to talk about it. It's to the point where the fishermen are wanting to fight with each other because they're all stressing so bad.

GUPTA: This place couldn't exist, where would you go? Who would you talk to, Yvonne?

MORRIS: There's nowhere to go to even talk to anybody. There's nowhere to go where you feel comfortable enough to open up and let people know how you're feeling.

JOYCELYN HEINTZ-GRAY, ST. BERNARD PARISH: If we can get the psychologist here to train some people and be able to start the peer- to-peer counseling, out in to lower St. Bernard, when they come back home, they're not dealing -- they're venting to you. Are you able to handle it because you're being trained on how to do the stress relief practices?

GUPTA: We have learned some things from Valdez. We know that mental health issues do tend to affect women more. Is that what you're seeing here?

LANDRY: They're taking their children, their husband and then their own problems and they're taking it all on by themselves.

MORRIS: Right. And I have to hold my head high and I have to keep a smile on my face to keep my neighbors and my children and their children from being upset, to show them that there is a silver lining. There is another way out. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: Now, I tell you, as well, both Yvonne and Rachel lost their homes during Katrina. And again, now, this.

The Saint Bernard's project you just saw out there, it's seeing about 90 patients a week. And many more people are living around here need exactly this sort of service.

Up next, beyond the mental anguish, there's also a lot of cleanup workers getting sick. I'm going to talk to Kindra. She's a shrimper's wife who finally broke the silence.

Stay with SGMD.



ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I found who is. People are mighty quiet around here.


COHEN: Why are they terrified?

ARNESEN: It's BP. You're messing with the king. That's what I've been told. "Kindra, you're not scared? You're messing with the king."

COHEN: So why aren't you scared?



GUPTA: Messing with the king. That's what she said. Kindra Arnesen -- she's a fisherman's wife. You just saw her there. One of the first to speak out as well about the health impact of this oil disaster.

Now, since that original interview with my colleague Elizabeth Cohen, Kindra has been getting a lot of attention from people in the community and in some pretty high places.

Well, we've asked her to join us this morning to talk about what's happening there.

Thank you so much for joining us.

ARNESEN: Thank you for having me.

GUPTA: First of all, how's your husband doing?

ARNESEN: He's doing better. If he doesn't take the medicine, the symptoms come back. But ... GUPTA: He is home now?

ARNESEN: He's actually working now.

GUPTA: He's back to work.

ARNESEN: He is working. He's not shrimping or fishing at this point. He's working with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, transporting supplies and oiled birds, transport supplies there and oiled birds back.

GUPTA: You know, one thing -- I've been here for some time now and you've talked about this. But there does seem to be this distrust that has really formed between the citizens and BP, between the citizens and, to some extent, the government, between the citizens and anybody really everybody else not getting enough information.

You've been able to get some information. Are the people here protected?

ARNESEN: Are the people here protected -- I can't make that assessment at this time. I only went up one time yesterday in the helicopter with Coast Guard and only went over two out of the 15 zones. I do have the look into this further as to make a fair assessment.

GUPTA: What is the biggest concern of residents here?

ARNESEN: The biggest concern is contamination of our marshlands. Our marshlands come right up to the our back levees and the front levee on both sides. I mean, the east and the west side.

And, you know, if it's contaminated with this heavy crude, this is not Louisiana sweet crude.

GUPTA: Right.

ARNESEN: And OSHA clearly made that statement. So, we have more chemicals in this than what we would normally have a Louisiana sweet crude. So, if it -- the heat here, the oil's in the marsh is going to heat up. The chemicals come off of it. People are in fear of the chemical exposure more than anything.

GUPTA: For their health?

ARNESEN: For their health. Absolutely.

GUPTA: Now, we've done a lot of stories talking about people who are actually, the cleanup workers, literally, you see with their faces almost in this oil dispersant mixture without masks, which, as a doctor, that really surprised me. But for the citizens living in this area, can you say they're being affected, as well?

ARNESEN: Absolutely.

GUPTA: What's happening to them? ARNESEN: We have one lady who's had to leave the area three -- one, two, three -- four different times, I'm sorry, and -- because of severe asthma attacks. Her asthma left dormant for over 10 years. And since this has happened, it's nonstop asthma attack after asthma attack, to the point where she can't even function. So, her husband has to take her out of the area.

GUPTA: So, where she leaves, she gets better?


GUPTA: She comes back and it comes back.

ARNESEN: It comes back all over again.

GUPTA: How about yourself?

ARNESEN: Myself, it's mostly just a sticky throat. And I broke out in the a rash twice. And when I go outside and I spend a lot of time outside, it just kind of depends on which way the wind blows. If the smell's really heavy, I get nausea and the severe headaches.

GUPTA: And again, we're not talking about just the cleanup workers here. We're talking about residents in this community.

ARNESEN: The residents on the peninsula.

GUPTA: People, you met with the Coast Guard. You even got an ID now, so you can go and talk to them more freely. You tried to meet with BP as well to ask some of these questions. What do they tell you?

ARNESEN: I don't know, and I'll get back to you.

GUPTA: That's the standard answer.

ARNESEN: That's pretty much it.

GUPTA: They write your name and phone number down?

ARNESEN: Yes. We went in. Our names were written on a little pad in their office with our phone number. And we went in a week later and the same piece of paper was on the same desk in the same spot, but it had little doodles all around the name and the phone number. So, that's their getting back to us.

GUPTA: That's -- well, they did something with the paper, I guess.

ARNESEN: Yes, I guess they did something.

GUPTA: Are -- when people talk about this community, I know it's a very tight-knit community.

ARNESEN: Absolutely.

GUPTA: When you -- are you -- are you talking to your fellow neighbors about this? What is the general sentiment here?

ARNESEN: As much as possible, I'm trying to reach out to the community members, because they're very confused. They're terrified. They don't know what's going on. They don't trust anybody.

And the reason for the distrust, you know, BP came in in the beginning of things and had the big commercial fishermen. Over 2,000 people attended. And the first thing they said was: We're BP and we do business right. So, right off the bat, so, we have the largest oil production company in the United States that we're working with here. One of the largest, whatever the case may have been, big company. They're going to take care of it.

We're American citizens. The federal government is going to come in. Get onboard. Everybody is going to be on the same page. It's going to be handled. I mean, everywhere else, if anything happens anywhere else in the world, we're there, right on -- Johnny on the spot. And that's not the case here.

So, they've seen all of their hopes in the beginning of this just crumbled, and it's just -- it's really heartbreaking. It's discouraging.

GUPTA: I know, and I wish we could be saying more optimistic news this morning. But, you know, sometimes, it's just the reality of things.

Thanks so much for joining us.

ARNESEN: Thank you.

GUPTA: I hope you feel well and your husband as well.

ARNESEN: Thank you.

GUPTA: We'll be back here and we'll be here a lot. Thanks.

Up next, we're going to talk about another question a lot people are asking about: Seafood, is it really safe? That question is answered next. Stay with us.


GUPTA: Every week at this time, I'm going to be answering your questions. This is your appointment, no waiting time, no insurance necessary.

Let's get right to it. A question from Facebook, Doug Johnson from Memphis asks this: "What are the risks to all the seafood that's coming out of the Gulf? What happens if someone eats something that's been tainted by the spill?"

Well, let me just a paint a picture for you. First of all, about 37 percent of the Gulf of Mexico is now closed to fishing. It's a little bit larger than the state of Minnesota. Now, the federal government says it is taking every precaution to protect people from eating bad fish and seafood. Right now, officials say fish and shellfish currently on the market are absolutely fine, absolutely safe to eat. No reason to believe that any contaminated seafood has made its way into stores and restaurants.

And also, the bottom line: if someone actually eats a little bit contaminated seafood, experts seem to agree that there's not much to fear. You might get sick for a day, sick to your stomach, but that's really about it.

Now, as for as dispersants used to combat the oil spill, experts say dispersants don't accumulate on seafood -- important point. So, consumers shouldn't be concerned about that either.

Colleagues have also been asked how the seafood will eventually be tested to figure out if it is safe? Before they reopen fishing in the area, workers are going to test the fish tissue, the sediments, and the water from the area to determine if seafood from the area is safe.

I can tell you, a lot of people out here are eating the seafood, doing just fine.

I spent a lot time in Louisiana recently, as you may know, investigating another environmental disaster -- this one involving a small town in the western part of the state. It's called Mossville. And this is all part of my special investigation, "Toxic America." What is the impact of all these toxic families to our families? Don't you think it's time for some answers? I do.

"Toxic America," an SGMD special investigation, tonight at 8:00 p.m.

I'm going to have some final thoughts about what's happening here in the region. And, again, you know, you watch these images all the time, but there are real people and real stories behind those images.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: For over a month now, you've probably been looking at images like this of the oil actually coming out -- really, just in these huge plumes. You look at these images. If you don't live in this part of country, it may be just a news story for you.

But for the people who live here, it has a profound impact. I can tell you that. Just not economically as well, but on their physical health, their mental health. They tell me that they think that this is worse than Katrina in some ways because this was a manmade disaster; where Katrina for the most part was natural disaster. And how they're going to recover is hard to say. We're going to talk about this for sometime to come.

If you missed any part of today's show, check out my podcast on

Remember, this is the place for the answers to all your medical questions. Thanks for watching.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

T.J. and Suzanne are in the studio. More news on CNN starts right now.