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Mayflower Oil Spill: Exxon Doesn't Want You to Know People Are Getting Very, Very Sick

The oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas has left residents outside the evacuation zone complaining of illness. Exxon says the air is safe, but new documentation shows they lied and attempted to cover up the extent of the oil spill. We should trust residents who are suffering from spill-induced illness, not Exxon.

"I could smell that horrible smell. I got really scared,"says Sherry Appleman, who awoke to a nightmare on March 29. As the Exxon Tar Sands oil flowed through their town, residents of Mayflower reported strong odors that lead to headaches and vomiting in areas that Exxon deemed safe and not in need of evacuation. Some of residents, like Scott Crowe, were deemed safe to remain in their homes where a mere 300 yards from the rupture site. They say they haven't heard from city officials or Exxon, but have experienced headaches, stomach pains, nausea, fainting, and have been prescribed inhalers for the first time.

Ann Jarrell reports that she stayed at home with her daughter and a 3 month old grandchild despite the smells because they were told they didn't need to evacuate and were safe. Ann Jarrell is a beekeeper and found dead, oil-soaked bees on her porch. The state plant board agreed to evacuate her bees to a safe location, but deemed the situation safe enough for Jarell's family. They later learned it was likely they'd been exposed to toxic chemical fumes, and are now suffering from breathing problems and have been placed on inhalers.

A local elementary school outside the evacuation zone had to send home eight students who became ill after breathing petrochemical fumes. Although Exxon had determined the air around the school safe, residents, including school officials, reported strong odors of oil in and around the building. These are just a handful of disturbing examples of illness in Mayflower after the oil spill. One Mayflower resident, despite being able to see the leak from her home, was told by Exxon that residents were merely suffering allergies.  Some of the residents affected by the spill have filed a class action lawsuit.

Watch Mayflower residents discuss their situation below:

Arkansas regulators have stated that the level of toxic chemicals in the air are low enough that residents are safe, but the symptoms of residents match classic symptoms of exposure to chemicals in crude oil.  Furthermore, samples taken by the the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group and Global Community Monitor found high levels of airborne compounds that are known to be hazardous to human health. "Total toxic hydrocarbons were detected at more than 88,000 parts per billion in the ambient air and present a complex airborne mixture or soup of toxic chemicals that residents may have been exposed to from the Mayflower tar sands bitumen spill," Neil Carman, a representative from the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

Much of the attention has been focused on airborne benzene, which is toxic even at low levels, but little attention has been paid to the hundreds of other chemicals that are airborne. Little is known about some of these chemicals' effect on human health. Some experts have claimed that there are gaps in scientific research, and that it could be hard to judge the short- and long-term effects of exposure. While Exxon and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality claim the air is safe, Attorney General McDaniels remains unconvinced, and points to findings of benzene in residents' homes. Countering the Arkansas Department of Health, AG McDaniels stated, "I have a real concern about the short- and long-term effects of carcinogens released into the air which are still detectable in the living rooms of people in that area," and further stated, "Who determines what’s an imminent health risk? ... And if it was your house, how much would you be content to have benzene in the living room and be comforted that it's not an imminent health risk?"

While Exxon is claiming that air in Mayflower is safe, newly revealed documents showed that they have attempted to cover up information about the Mayflower spill in the past.  Greenpeace filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found emails and other documentation proving that Exxon knew that oil had been found in Lake Conway and the nearby cove, and intentionally attempted to mislead the public about the extent of the spill in local waterways. While Exxon has been forced to redact its statements on the lake being "oil free," it hasn't commented on the dangerous levels of benzene found in the lake. The American Petroleum Institute and the EPA agree that exposure to benzene is unsafe. Residents surrounding the "oil-free" lake were not evacuated,

Exxon has shown us that the residents of Mayflower cannot take the company at its word about the safety of its waterways. It's foolish to assume we can trust the company's evaluation of the air quality in Mayflower, when we now know they attempted to cover up public safety issues.

Those who have have suffered health problems are not sure where to turn. No central health clinic has been set up for them, and most family doctors have no experience diagnosing or treating this type of chemical exposure. Residents have found doctors lacking the knowledge to treat them. Most medical schools do not have expertise in  environmental health concerns, and attempts to secure federal funding for specialized doctors to train local doctors on these types of medical issues have failed in the past.

Exxon has clearly shown that the company is willing to lie about safety issues in order to serve its own interests. We should believe the residents of Mayflower over a company that has shown it is willing to leave people in harm's way in order to preserve its public image. Unfortunately for Exxon, the sick residents of Mayflower aren't going away, and they aren't willing to remain silent.

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