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The BP oil disaster has caused so much distress around the Gulf. A lot of people want to help. But before heading towards the region to help, there are a few things you should know. You could be exposing yourself to potential risks. Wilma Subra is a microbiologist and a chemist. She’s consulted for the Environmental Protection Agency and she warns helpers could face health hazards.

SUBRA: Well if people are considering coming down and volunteering to help out in these communities or to help actually help out clean up a beach or wetland they have to realize that they must receive appropriate Hazmat training so they know the precautions they need to take

PAYNE: Wilma Subra works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. They supply safety equipment to crews who are working to clean and contain the leak.

SUBRA: They must be provided with protective gear; respirators, goggles, protective clothing and gloves. If they are not, they will be severely impacted on the short term having acute impacts and the potential to have very long chronic health impacts.

PAYNE: BP spokesman Graham McEwen says BP is “unaware of any health complaints among cleanup workers.” Wilma Subra disagrees. She says as someone who works on chemical messes, she knows the symptoms of exposure to toxic substances, and she’s seeing them here.

SUBRA: Its causing headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, burning eyes, sore throat and for people who have asthma its causing asthma attacks.

PAYNE: Workers who are close to the oil and dispersants aren’t the only ones at risk. Subra says that toxic vapors have reached as far away as New Orleans. She says parts of crude oil belong to a family of chemicals know as volatile organics. And it’s easy for these chemicals to be carried long distances by the wind.

SUBRA: Volatile organics are chemicals that evaporate easily, sort-of like when you were young and had a bottle of finger nail polish remover and you opened it up and your mom came running in there and said be careful, I know you opened it, because I can smell It all over the house. They give off the vapors. And benzene is one of those volatile organics and its known to cause cancer in humans.

PAYNE: Environmental chemist, Wilma Subra. If you are looking to volunteer with clean up efforts, make sure to protect yourself. Check out the list of places where you can help at For Planet Harmony, I’m Ebony Payne.

For more volunteer information in each gulf coast state check below:

• Volunteer Louisiana – 800.755.5175

• Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service

• Volunteer Florida

• 211 Connects Alabama – 866.869.4921

(Image Courtesey of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice)

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