Greta’s story of developing chemical sensitivity and fragrance sensitivity working on the Exxon Valdez cleanup


Greta’s gripping story of what it was like to work on those oil-soaked beaches appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity.

My parents were commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet, where they had their own boat. My sister and I usually spent summers fishing with them to earn money for college. The summer after the oil spill, when I was nineteen, Cook Inlet was polluted by the oil, so we weren’t able to fish.  My mom and my sister and I all got hired by VECO to help clean the beaches in July and August because they were looking for women to help fill their quota of minorities. A week or two later my dad joined us on the cleanup.

Before we left Valdez for the six- to eight-hour ferry ride to the barge where we were supposed to sleep at night, the people in charge held a safety meeting for us. They said we should make sure the oil didn’t get on our skin. That turned out to be a joke because when we started working, we discovered it was impossible to keep the oil off our skin. To make the situation worse, there wasn’t anywhere on the beaches where you could wash the oil off your hands before you ate.

They gave us boots, a helmet, rain gear, and plastic gloves, but we got a lot of oil on our faces. They gave us a can of foam stuff to put on our face and exposed skin, and my mom and sister and I used it. Others didn’t.  It probably came off when we sweat anyway.

When we reached the beach on the first day after riding for an hour from our berthing vessel, they assigned us to clean the rocks with pom-poms, which were balls made of half-inch strips of plastic. We would sit down on the rocks while we were working because it was hard to bend down for hour after hour. There were fumes coming off the oily rocks, and between the rocks there were puddles of oil containing decaying seaweed that smelled really bad. I remember a couple of spots that smelled so terrible that we could only work there for a few minutes at a time. People were getting lightheaded and dizzy and nauseous from the oil fumes; sometimes we felt like we might pass out. They had to take one person off the beach because she was starting to hallucinate. 

When our pom-poms got full of oil, we would put them into black plastic garbage bags. There must have been tons and tons of those garbage bags full of oily pom-poms. We always wondered how they were going to dispose of all those bags because every day we filled dozens of them.

We were always sitting in oil, and the odor would give us headaches.  When we leaned down to work, oil would often splatter on our faces and sometimes our wrists would get exposed. We couldn’t pull off our gloves to eat without ending up with oil on our hands and on our food.  After you pulled off one glove, you had to pull the other glove off with your bare hand, so of course you ended up with oil all over that hand.

During the first couple of weeks, we were getting really dehydrated because the only way we could get a drink out of our bag was to take off our gloves, which was a messy operation. After a while, we started bringing water jugs and cups and some first-aid stuff. We finally got rebellious, so the supervisors let us set up a “safety station,” where we kept a cooler with water in it and cups and snacks and first-aid supplies.  My mom and sister worked that station, and it was great to be able to have a drink without having to take off your oily gloves. And when my glasses got oily, they would clean them for me.

At first there weren’t even any bathroom facilities on the beaches.  We just had to go out in the woods and take off our gear, which wasn’t easy when it was covered with oil, so once again it was hard to keep the oil off our skin. Eventually they set up tents that contained something like port-a-potties.

On one of the beaches we were assigned to, we had to cross slippery rocks to reach the beach. That was really scary. One man fell and broke his leg, and an ambulance boat had to come for him. Most of us ended up crawling over the rocks.

I stopped working two weeks before my classes were supposed to start at the University of Anchorage. A year or so after the spill I started having horrible migraines; I had never had migraines before. After the cleanup, I also developed asthma.  During the first year or so after the oil spill, I would get aching in the bones in my legs, which I had never had before, and my joints are painful now. I started noticing other changes in my health too. I really like to garden, but I am able to spend less and less time doing that because gardening makes my skin itch and feel prickly. I also have allergy problems with my nose and throat now that I had never had before I worked on the oil-spill cleanup. [Alison Johnson’s note: Japanese studies have linked chemical exposure to increased allergic reactions to pollen and other allergens.  See, for example, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 77 (April 1986):  616-23.]

One of the things that has affected my life in a major way is the chemical sensitivity I developed after the oil-spill cleanup. I always end up with a headache if I use hair spray, and I can=t use perfume now because it gives me a headache and often makes me feel angry. Before I worked on the oil spill, I could paint my nails and use polish remover. Now I can=t stand it when my daughter uses polish remover. I can=t use white-out because it makes me feel sick and headachey and my chest starts to tighten. I have to avoid gasoline and diesel. My parents and my sister who worked the spill with me can=t use perfume now either, and we all have to be very careful what cleaning products we use.

Looking back, I can’t help thinking how ironic it is that my efforts to earn a little money for college working on the oil-spill cleanup would end up causing me so many health problems.