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A Q&A with chemist and MacArthur 'Genius Grant' recipient Wilma Subra, on the Mayflower oil spill 

A former vice-chair of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, Dr. Wilma Subra runs the Subra Company, a consulting firm and chemistry lab in New Iberia, La. that does chemical analysis and provides technical assistance to communities dealing with oil, chemical and hazardous waste spills and pollution. She has degrees in Microbiology and Chemistry from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and worked extensively in communities along the Gulf of Mexico following the BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. In 1999, she was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" fellowship for her work. Subra came to Mayflower to see the cleanup efforts and speak to residents on Earth Day in April, and has done independent analysis of data collected by state, federal and other agencies in the spill zone since then.

What was your experience from your visit to Mayflower? What was the takeaway for you?

That this is a very serious condition. At the time, they were storing a lot of the waste that they'd excavated in the residential area, and the whole area still had a lot of volatiles being given off. The emissions from the spill are still very present in the community, as well as present in the cove and lake area, so the exposure is continuing.

And what are the hazards of that kind of exposure?

If you look at the chemicals that have been detected in air and water samples, the issue is that benzene is a known human cancer-causing agent, and also causes mutations. It causes things like headache, dizziness, nausea, irritations to skin, eyes and nose. These are the same symptoms that the people were experiencing from the very beginning — the acute symptoms. Then we're seeing a lot of toluene. We're seeing the toluene in samples that were collected in the residential area when they collect a canister, and we're seeing the samples that are taken from the surface water in the cove area. Because of the instrumentation they're using to monitor the air in the residential area, they're not looking specifically for toluene, but toluene has the same impacts [as benzene], like headaches, dizziness, irritations to the eyes, nose and throat, and then it causes liver and kidney damage, brain damage and developing fetus damage. We're thinking that a lot of the health impacts are due to benzene and toluene, but then the heavier ends of the crude are what are called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and they're things like chrysene, anthracene, pyrene. They cause those same acute impacts, as well as they're suspected to cause cancer and mood changes. It all matches — the chemicals that are detected in the air samples and in the water samples match the symptoms that the community is experiencing.

ExxonMobil evacuated several of the houses that are actually in the Northwoods subdivision after the spill, and has been talking about buying several of the homes in the subdivision, but our understanding from many people in Mayflower is that ExxonMobil's outreach to those outside the subdivision has been lacking. Was that your experience as well?

That was the experience from the very beginning. When they evacuated the 22 homes, they focused on the residential area, and they didn't consider all the people who lived and worked and the churches on the perimeter. Some of those were just as close some of the houses that were evacuated. That continues to this day. Those were the people who were also made very, very sick. They were not evacuated, and they continue to experience the odors. A week or two ago, there was a big rainfall event, and there was visible crude floating in the area and the odors were really compounded by the rain event.

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