They called it the "Valdez crud," but it was more than a cough and diarrhea.
"We thought it was a flu that was going around and every body kept getting it," said Merle Savage, who was general foreman of the cleanup crews of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Instead, the stuff that was making cleanup workers sick was a toxic cocktail of oil droplets in mist they inhaled from spraying the shoreline with hot water and chemicals that were used to disperse the spill's massive black wave.
Now Savage wants today's workers to be aware of similar risks they might face in cleaning up the even bigger BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Savage, who wrote a book, "Silence in the Sound," about the Exxon Valdez cleanup, recounts those risks as she sits in the upstairs "Alaska Room" of the North Las Vegas home where she now lives with her son and daughter-in-law.
Many of the thousands of Exxon Valdez cleanup workers have died or have become seriously ill from inhaling the toxic mist and handling dispersants that contained benzene and other chemicals.
Of dozens of lawsuits that were filed by sick workers, seven were settled out of court and the records have been sealed.
One cleanup chemical, 2-Butoxyethanol, can be absorbed through the skin and cause blood and kidney damage resulting in headaches, respiratory problems and even death, according to the material safety data sheet for the dispersant, INIPOL, which was used in the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill.
After she wrote her book in 2003, Savage teamed up with marine toxicologist Riki Ott to warn about the dangers involved with cleaning up oil spills. In a video with Ott, Savage described the shoreline cleanup as being "like a war zone."
"What we know now is the oil is 1,000 times more toxic than we thought," Savage said. "The BP spill is going to be worse. I'm warning workers to understand how toxic the crude oil can be."
Read more on this story on the Las Vegas Review-Journal's website: "Exxon Valdez oil risks spur warning for gulf cleanup crews"
For continuous coverage of the BP Oil Spill on KBTX, see kbtx.com/bpoilspill