Oil is this century's DDT, author says


Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 10:13 p.m.

Facts

Events

  • Ott will talk about her book "Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$; The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill," from 7-9 p.m. tonight in room 238 of Rinker Hall on the UF campus, at Newell and Inner Drives. Her talk is sponsored by the UF Student Environmental Action Group and the San Felasco Chapter of the Florida Planning Association. Wine and refreshments will be served.
  • Ott will speak at noon Wednesday as part of the brown bag lunch sustainable seminar series, in the same place, Rinker Hall, room 238. This talk is co-sponsored by the College of Design, Construction and Planning and Sustainable Alachua County, among other groups.
  • At 8 p.m. tomorrow, Ott will conduct a book signing at Goerings Bookstore (at SW 34th Street and West University Ave.). Call 378-0363.
  • For more information about her book, visit www.soundtruth.info.

  • Riki Ott was 13 when her father handed her Rachel Carson's environmental classic, "Silent Spring."
    Finally, within its pages she discovered why the robins were dropping from the trees around her family's Wisconsin home.
    "I thought it was magic how one person could be that smart and explain things in a way that a 13-year-old could understand," recalls Ott. "I made up my mind I wanted to be like her."
    Ott went on to become a marine biologist, like Carson, earning a Ph.D. in marine toxicology. Her specialty is oil pollution.
    Ott will be in Gainesville today and tomorrow to introduce her version of "Silent Spring" - a book she wrote about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
    "Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$, The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill" exposes the true toxicity of oil, Ott says.
    Oil is a far more toxic substance - to wildlife, the environment, and to human health - than previously believed. Ott asserts that Exxon created a cover-up of mass chemical poisoning of clean-up workers. She likens their illnesses to those suffered by Gulf War veterans.
    And while Ott says Exxon would have you believe that wildlife species have recovered to pre-spill populations, she says this is not the case.
    "The story that's played out in the popular press is pretty much Exxon's story," says Ott. "(Exxon contends) only 11 million gallons were spilled, fishing's back to normal and the fishermen were paid off.
    "We have a whole other reality in Prince William Sound."
    'It was fate' Ott first traveled to Alaska in the summer of 1985, after finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Washington. She thought it was just for the summer, before she started a "real" job, but she fell in love with Alaska and never returned to live in the lower 48.
    Ott worked as a commercial fisherman in Prince William Sound, and in 1987 began volunteering for United Fishermen of Alaska. She fished in the summers, and in the winters, she put her education to use consulting on chronic air- and water-pollution issues plaguing the tanker terminal Port Valdez.
    Ott was living in Cordova on the east side of Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez gutted its hull on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989. Thirty million gallons of crude oil would eventually coat 3,200 miles of Alaska's coastline.
    "It was fate. I was in the right place at the right time. I was probably one of the most knowledgeable people in Alaska regarding oil pollution at that time," Ott says.
    She has devoted her life to helping Prince William Sound recover and to studying the spill ever since.
    Ott began work on her book in 1998. As word of her research spread, she started getting phone calls from former Valdez clean-up workers.
    "They all sounded the same. This really heavy, raspy breathing," she recalls.
    During the clean-up, she says, workers complained of flu-like symptoms they attributed to stress and long hours.
    But instead of the symptoms going away when the clean-up ended, for many workers, the symptoms worsened.
    Ott was intrigued. She picked up the paper trail, examining court records and talking with scientists. She found workers were suffering from "brain fog" - not being able to concentrate - headaches, dizziness, nausea, or extreme sensitivity to chemicals, she says.
    "People were getting headaches from hydrocarbon vapors," she says.
    For example, one man was standing in line at the grocery store when the perfume of the woman in front of him caused him to have a headache.
    Chemical exposure Ott says environmental medicine is gaining momentum in the United States. It parallels occupational medicine and deals with the health effects of low levels of chemicals in the environment, such as paint and carpet fumes.
    She says the average person doesn't link his headache to solvent exposure or to the exhaust he has breathed during rush-hour traffic. But our bodies can only take so much chemical exposure.
    "It's like your body is a rain barrel, and it fills up in your lifetime," she explains.
    Once your body has had enough, it cannot cope with the continuing onslaught of exposure.
    "A lot of (our symptoms) we normalize and don't associate with chemical sensitivity," she says.
    Environmental doctors call it the "petrochemical problem," largely based on studies of Gulf War vets.
    "But now the environmental medicine doctors realize it's actually the oil itself, and in particular, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (that are responsible for making people sick)," she says.
    Ott says the EPA in 1999 listed 22 of the PAHs in oil on its list of human health hazards. That same list includes dioxin, lead, mercury, PCBs and DDT.
    Ninety-two percent of the PAHs that collect in the water from rainfall are coming from burning fossil fuels in our vehicles and power plants, Ott says.
    "The problem is that we have been thinking, since we've been using oil, that its benign and doesn't cause health problems," she says.
    Instead, she says, environmental medicine specialists have identified the problem as creating an epidemic of asthma, depression and chemical sensitivity.
    ' We need to all start' Ott says she tried to write a book that reads well, whether you're a scientist or a lay person.
    "It's fun to read, it's like a novel, but on the other hand there's a lot of references," she says.
    Indeed, her book has 30 pages of appendices, and it has gotten endorsements by celebrity scientists such as Jane Goodall and representatives of the Positive Futures Network and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
    Ott says it's time for all of us to consider our own oil use.
    "I would like to see a future where we're not all fighting over the last drop of oil," she says.
    She is looking forward to the widespread use of hybrid vehicles and bicycles.
    "But we need to all start. That's what I hope with this book, that it (gives readers) another reason to be personally accountable for their own oil use."

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