Environmental & Health Effects of Oil Dispersants a Mystery to BP and the Government

Dead fish from the BP gulf disasterU.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson questions BP's widespread application of oil dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico, as does everyone else. According to Jackson, the government is "uncharted waters" with the use of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico. "The amount of dispersant being used at the surface is unprecedented," Jackson says. BP is also applying the chemicals in the sub-sea environment. In addition, dispersant is stopping oil from collecting on water surface, where it can be more easily controlled.

BP's Web site gives the impression that dispersants "clean and control" ocean oil spills by putting the oil in a state where "it becomes a feast for the naturally-occurring microbes that inhabit the ocean." But dispersants do not clean the water, nor do they remove oil at all, but rather re-arrange where it exists, and change where it goes.

A 3-D Environmental Problem

In the absence of significant scientific data describing their environmental effects, EPA has scrambled to perform short-term testing on dispersants. The agency issued a relatively benign assessment of the dispersants' effects, but private-sector toxicologists, biologists and other experts are warning about the unknown consequences of applying dispersants in such quantities. Corexit, the optimistically-named dispersant most favored by BP, essentially turns a two-dimensional problem of oil floating on the ocean's surface into a three-dimensional problem where oil gets mixed with dispersants and, through the action of microbes, changes into yet other chemicals that "we know absolutely nothing about," says marine biologist and toxicologist Chris Pincetich, Ph.D., who specializes in pesticides. EPA's short-term testing on dispersants may have showed little effect on fish, but chemicals that kill no fish within a deadline of 96 hours (EPA's deadline) can cause a 97% kill rate shortly beyond that deadline. Thus, short terms tests mean little, says Dr. Pincetich, who concludes that BP and, through its complicity, the government are essentially conducting a huge, environmental experiment on the Gulf "the likes of which we have never seen." Another area for which we lack data is the impact on air quality of of burning large quantities of oil and dispersant/oil mixture, as is also ongoing in the Gulf.

Swimming in the Dark: Little Data Available on Dispersants

Oil pooled on the surface is burned in the Gulf, polluting the airOn May 8, three Louisiana government agencies dealing with health, environment and wildlife jointly wrote a letter (pdf) to BP CEO Tony Hayward seeking information about the dispersants BP was using: "We have serious concerns about the lack of information related to the use of dispersants in fighting the oil spill at and below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico," the officials wrote, "and what, if any, impact the dispersants could have on our people, water and air quality, as well as the wildlife, fisheries and vegetation of Louisiana's coastline and wetlands." They sought data from BP on the short and long-term effects of the use of the dispersants on water, seafood stocks, humans and wildlife over time, and information on what resources BP had to restore wetlands and fisheries harmed by dispersants.

The government and BP both lack crucial scientific information about dispersants. Nevertheless, BP continues to apply them in massive quantities on the Gulf, and the government seems powerless to stop the company from using them. On May 23, EPA and the Coast Guard ordered BP to reduce its use of dispersant by 75 percent from its peak usage. Over the next month, though, BP reduced its usage only 68 percent, so application is still ongoing in one of the biggest environmental experiments ever performed.

You can see photos of the real impact of BP's oil blowout on the Gulf and its wildlife here.


“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” said Richard Charter, a foremost expert on marine biology and oil spills who is a senior policy advisor for Marine Programs for Defenders of Wildlife and is chairman of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. Once they are dispersed, the tiny droplets of oil are more likely to sink or remain suspended in deep water rather than floating to the surface and collecting in a continuous slick. Dispersed oil can spread quickly in three directions instead of two and is more easily dissipated by waves and turbulence. But the dispersed oil can also collect on the seabed, where it becomes toxic food for microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain and eventually winds up in shellfish and other organisms. Moreover, experiments by John Nyman of Louisiana State University indicate that the combination of Louisiana crude and the dispersant used on the current gusher is more toxic to marsh-dwelling invertebrates than oil alone would be. According to a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report, the dispersants and the oil they leave behind can kill fish eggs. A study of oil dispersal in Coos Bay, Ore. found that Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) accumulated in mussels, the Academy’s paper noted. Another study examining fish health after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 found that PAHs affected the developing hearts of Pacific herring and pink salmon embryos. The research suggests the dispersal of the oil that’s leaking in the Gulf could affect the seafood industry there. “One of the most difficult decisions that oil spill responders and natural resource managers face during a spill is evaluating the trade-offs associated with dispersant use,” said the Academy report, titled Oil Spill Dispersants, Efficacy and Effects. “There is insufficient understanding of the fate of dispersed oil in aquatic ecosystems.” Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence and former chief scientist at NOAA, stated that “the instructions for humans using Corexit warn that it is an eye and skin irritant, is harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed, and may cause injury to red blood cells, kidney or the liver.” “People are warned not to take Corexit internally,” she said, “but the fish, turtles, copepods and jellies have no choice. They are awash in a lethal brew of oil and butoxyethanol.” Earle further states, “Not only is the flow of millions of gallons of oil an issue in the Gulf, but also the thousands of gallons of toxic dispersants that make the ocean look a little better on the surface – where most people are – but make circumstances a lot worse under the surface, where most of the life in the ocean actually is. We don’t know what the effect of dispersants applied a mile underwater is; there’s been no laboratory testing of that at all, or the effect of what it does when it combines with oil a mile underwater.” One problem with breaking down the oil is that it makes it easier for the many tiny underwater organisms to ingest this toxic soup. Earle called for a halt on the subsurface use of dispersants, while limiting surface use to strategic sites where other methods cannot safeguard critically important coastal habitats. For a better understanding of why toxic dispersants are being used by BP in such an excessive and unprecedented manner, visit: http://renergie.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/bps-strategy-to-limit-liability-in-regard-to-its-gulf-oil-gusher/

Now this junk is washing up on our beaches in Texas. When can we expect this to all end? What BP DOESNT WANT YOU TO KNOW, is that all the failed attempts to stop the well have filled it with debris that make it impossible for new attempts to go smoothly.

I have read that Environmental Protection Agency has ranked worst environmental health problem in the nation. And BP is not main reason tot think so. National health problem is permannent.

These dispersants can't be good for our water. It's time the government steps in and makes this right.

I sure hope the oil gets cleaned up soon. I was driving along the gulf coast last week and stopped to look at the beaches. Terrible...

The unknown effects of the extensive use of dispersants is of great concern. As if the original faux pas wasn't bad enough, this strategy appears to be compounding the situation in an unprecedented manner. Thanks for this info: http://renergie.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/bps-strategy-to-limit-liability-in-regard-to-its-gulf-oil-gusher/

Although it is clear the damage that the oil spill and dispersants are doing, we hear calls to resume drilling. Had the same politicians been in office, we would still be using lead paint, DDT would be sprayed everywhere and aerosol cans would be king--wouldn't want to lose any jobs. Where were all these people when jobs were being shipped to China, India and third-world countries? Why is it we only want THESE jobs? Business is now subsidized as if they are doing us a favor by selling their product. So we build stadiums to keep teams, we build Walmarts so the next town doesn't get them and we pay the cost of doing business while the company gets subsidized, tax breaks, offshore accounts and gives its employees fewer benefits and less pay (except the guys at the top who live like royalty). Perhaps, it is only fair that oil is ruining our coast as we are the ones using most of it. And I don't accept that it's the fault of the American people and their gas guzzlers. Politicians have failed to do anything to move us into more appropriate fuels; in the pockets of oil companies although they've made campaign pledges for decades. Even Hummers got a $5K subsidy. Yeah, I'd like an electric car but my government has made sure that the only one I can get doesn't hurt the oil industry--it costs far to much to be a threat. CA tried and failed to require electric cars and that failure was due to unwillingness of car companies and politics not lack of consumer demand. And I'd like solar power and wind power and an end to bottled water and higher MPG standards. Congress can do more in one minute by legislating than volunteers can do in a lifetime. They just don't. Our government is so broken and I suspect it will become more polarized so I don't really see any significant solution on the horizon. If Bush tax cuts are extended, I fear I won't be able afford to live here anymore as the tax burden on me - middle class - will be too great and the cost of health care as I get older beyond my capacity to pay. This country CAN do better. It just won't. .L Richards

Dispersants in the Gulf oil mess--another case of the cure being worse than the ailment. Chemicals, including lawn fertilizer, are causing too many problems in several aspects of our lives.

Who owns the dispersant company? BP Who had all of this massive amounts of some horrible otherwise useless chemical right there to dump into the oceans? BP Why would they even make such poison....only one reason....this! Why do they not brag up their tactics? We wouldn't buy it! Who gets paid first....the subsidiary, in other words....BP keeps its mega bucks!! Will we demand to know all of the details and track this back to its source, putting away for life the perpetrators of crimes against humanity---ALL of the whole EARTH's humanity? It's now or never folks! I think it must rest with our nonprofits to pursue this, as government is easily controlled by the elite. If all nonprofits do this in concert...it is too widespread and not yet in the grasp of the elite...we MIGHT have a chance. FIRST--DEMAND TODAY THAT DISPERSANTS STOP!!! Do NOT wait for testing! What parent would do that? Yeah, you can use jimmy's drugs until I get lab work back and have tested it for 30 years of trials???? JUST SAY^ NO!! We have to do it all together and NOW!

Of course, these bio remedies are not being used. Can we all acknowledge now that BP poisoned the World intentionally? Three warehouses full of microbes that eat oil, folks posting to youtube on the use of grasses to soak up the oil, all of it, and the grasses roll to shore, collect them and have it contained, and where it lands, use the microbes, which would have left behind only fish food. Microbes worked in the water too. Sad, very sad. Very intentional. Are we going to get to the bottom of responsibility? If we do not, they will continue. We could have been all green with energy at least 10 years ago, look at China and what they did in only ONE year! We, the People have to be diligent, or lose it all. May God go with us!