Monday, September 13, 2010

Which is worse BP oil or BP dispersants?

The chemicals BP has relied on to break up the steady flow of leaking oil from deep below the Gulf of Mexico could create a new set of environmental problems.

Even if the materials, called dispersants, are effective, BP has already bought up more than a third of the world’s supply. Dispersing the oil is considered one of the best ways to protect birds and keep the slick from making landfall. But the dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own and can concentrate leftover oil toxins in the water, where they can kill fish and migrate great distances.

The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret under competitive trade laws, but a worker safety sheet for one product, called Corexit, says it includes 2-butoxyethanol, a compound associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses.

“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. “It’s a trade-off – you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t -- of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore, but in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”

BP did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Dispersants are mixtures of solvents, surfactants and other additives that break up the surface tension of an oil slick and make oil more soluble in water, according to a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences. They are spread over or in the water in very low concentration – a single gallon may cover several acres.

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 that break it up further and help many of its most toxic hydrocarbons evaporate.

But the dispersed oil can also collect on the seabed, where it becomes food for microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain and eventually winds up in shellfish and other organisms. The evaporation process can also concentrate the toxic compounds left behind, particularly oil-derived compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

Studies if oil dispersal have found that the chemicals used can accumulate in shellfish and other organisms.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 PAH 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.”

A version of Corexit was widely used after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and, according to a literature review performed by the group the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, was later linked with health impacts in people including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders. But the Academy report makes clear that the dispersants used today are less toxic than those used a decade ago.

“There is a certain amount of toxicity,” said Robin Rorick, director of marine and security operations at the American Petroleum Institute. “We view dispersant use as a tool in a toolbox. It’s a function of conducting a net environmental benefit analysis and determining the best bang for your buck.”

Charter, the marine expert, cautioned the dispersants should be carefully considered for the right reasons.

“Right now there is a headlong rush to get this oil out of sight out of mind,” Charter said. “You can throw every resource we have at this spill. You can call out the Marine Corps and the National Guard. This is so big that it is unlikely that any amount of response is going to make much of a dent in the impacts. It’s going to be mostly watching it happen.”

Ryan Knutson contributed to this report. The above was published originally by ProPublica. (Hat tip to Jennifer).


Jen Kozubek said...

The recent oil spills are devastating not only for obvious reasons, but also for the decisions that follow such catastrophic environmentally hazardous events. If these dispersants are not the only option, how can we even consider the further harming of ourselves, future generations, and other species? The oil spills need to cleaned up and the marine life is already in extreme jeopardy. If dispersants are used and do negatively affect ecological health further, what are we to do?

ghassan karam said...

The more difficult the terrain the greater is the risk. I am convinced that the hugely important question that you raise has only one answer. We have no choice but to decrease , substantially, our dependence on oil.

catherine said...

How much more destruction are these oil companies going to be able to inflict upon the environment, and on humans, before governments begin to make them more accountable? As citizens, and consumers we should tell the oil companies that they can no longer use the natural world as a profit making tool by turning our backs on their products and turning toward sustainable energy resources!

Jeffrey Wolpert said...

The problem here is twofold. First, no one talks about why BP was drilling for oil in extremely deep waters where it is impossible to immediately cap a faulty oil well, or remedy a problem thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. The second problem is merely public relations related. BP's main goal was to get off of page 1 of every newspaper. The most expedient way to tell the public that they were not polluting the beaches and were capturing oil on the surface was through the use of dispersants. They would worry about the fallout from dispersants at some other time when some bigger global issue was on the front page of the newspapers. Too much of the resources available to BP are still, to this day, being channeled into public relations, and not enough is being done to clean the water and find solutions to potential long term health problems associated with an oil spill of this size. Every day BP spends millions on television and newspaper adds, which do not solve the problem, but are suppose to make people feel better about that company. Good thing I am vegetarian, because fish from the Gulf will be polluted for the next 20 years.

Cody Clement-Sanders said...

The oil spill was definitely devastating, as is the potential impact of the dispersants. I think that there has to be a change in the way business is done, and politics in general. The interests at hand are of very wealthy and powerful people and organizations, and public image is just about everything when it comes to their survival. There are probably political figures that are against reprimanding BP to harshly, maybe because they receive campaign funds from oil lobbyists. I think that in order to make a serious change in the system to make it more environmentally friendly, the groups that are in power and wealth will feel a detrimental impact. As they say, money talks, it's just a shame that it seems to be all that matters.

Sarah Dumont :) said...

I have taken several communications classes at Pace (being a Communication Studies major) and the last two years the professors I've had have said how important it is for the countries to come together, to become global. It wasn't until this year, my junior year, and with this incident of the oil spill and now this Environmental Studies course that I realize what exactly this means. When all the good comes out of the conversation of a globalized earth, I realize it's not all it's cracked up to be. For instances as the oil spill, it IS and ALWAYS WAS could it not be? It is hard for some to realize what happens here in The States can and will transcend around the globe faster than "specialists" here believe it will, and virtually, it can never be stopped. The oil can be attempted at containing, but it will spread as far as it can since waterways are connected in one way or another. BP, our U.S. government, and the citizens of our country can say whatever they will, but at the end of the day the oil spill, and other major events all the way down to the miniscule ones, are ALL of our problems.

Ryan said...

It's sad to see this kind of disaster happen again. It is so unclear why we don't have extremely strict regulations and regulators, this is a corporation and though many think the market can do no harm, obviously they have other people (shareholders) to please and they care about profits, not seafood. Ever since they changed their name they have been greenwashing people into believing they might actually be trying to do some good. We had to wait for months while they figured out how to plug the the leak, once they actually did it they proceeded to spill more and more chemicals into the waters to "disperse" the other oil. I don't believe our sealife have evolved a special oil resistant AND dispersant resistant shell to protect them from such disasters, so I am sure there will be some adverse health effects among people eating gulf seafood eventually. Unfortunately, it seems that a large amount of people must die before our government responds to a disaster and fish don't count.

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