Volunteers Cleaning up the Oil Spill in Brazil are Getting Sick

Volunteers cleaning up the oil spill in Brazil are getting sick. The mysterious spill has polluted more than 130 Northeastern beaches in Brazil for nearly two months.

Volunteers, without proper equipment, have been cleaning up the toxic sludge with their bare hands and feet. More than 2,000 kilometres of the coastline has been covered, as volunteers work without boots and gloves to protect themselves from the fumes.

“I had nausea and diarrhoea the next day, and a splitting headache,” Vera Lucia Silva, a local government clerk said. Ms. Silva, who volunteered on the Itapuama Beach, South of Recife, said that she and her friend collected 80 kilograms of oil with their bare hands into plastic bags.

The local infirmary admitted Ms Silva, where she received a drip. According to the volunteer, the government has provided no equipment for the oil clean-up, leaving it up to charity groups to hand out masks and boots to volunteers.

Gerald Graham, a Canadian oil spill response expert, commented, saying:

The government’s response has been really pathetic. They were not there. Why did they take so long to act?

He further advised the authorities to keep volunteers off the beach, stating that were not properly trained and equipped to deal with exposure to the hazardous oil, which could cause injury and even death.

Brazil’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, claimed that a crude oil “is very likely from Venezuela”. His conclusion came after a study carried out by the state oil company, Petrobras.

“We are not in the presence of a constant leak. If it is the result of a shipwrecked oil tanker, the leaks will continue for the moment. It appears to be criminal. This oil could have been dumped at sea.”

Since September 2, 100 tonnes of oil has been collected from the coastline, although it remained “enormously difficult to contain”, according to Salles. Approximately 500 barrels of oil have been spilt so far.

Petrobras’ chief executive, Roberto Castello, said the oil was far too much to have been from a routine tank cleaning.

“We are not in the presence of a constant leak. If it is the result of a shipwrecked oil tanker, the leaks will continue for the moment,” President Jair Bolsonaro added in a news conference in Brasilia. “It appears to be criminal. This oil could have been dumped at sea.”

On the 21st of October, Brazilian Vice-President Hamilton Mourão announced that 5,000 more troops would be dispatched to clean up the spill. Brazilians, however, have criticised this move as coming too late for any real change to be made.

In April, José Álvaro Moisés, a senior professor of political science at the University of São Paulo, criticised April Bolsonaro’s government for closing parts of Brazil’s national contingency plan for oil spills.

Former Environment Minister, Marina Silva said in a tweet: “The oil spill that’s reached over 132 beaches in the north-east is criminal. Removing the residue from the ocean can take 10 to 20 years. This is a warning that we need to strengthen and not suffocate the environmental monitoring institutions in the country.”

According to the Pernambuco state health department, 19 people have been treated in hospital for intoxication from direct contact with the oil. Some hospitalised volunteers were also intoxicated from the solvents being used to dilute the oil during the clean-up efforts.

Last week, Tourism Minister, Marcelo Alvaro Antonio visited a tourist hotspot in Pernambuco, Porto de Galinhas. In a PR move, the tourism minister dipped his feet in the sea to prove that Brazil’s sea are clean and tourist-friendly, citing that only 10% of Brazil’s beaches has been polluted by the oil.