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Why Using Dispersants In Gulf Oil Spill Is a Tradeoff

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Wednesday May 12th, 2010 | 10 Comments

“This is the largest, most comprehensive spill response mounted in the history of the United States and the oil and gas industry,” BP chief executive Tony Hayward said. Is it the correct response? BP is using chemicals, known as dispersants, to thin out the oil. These agents break up and “disperse” the oil. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Not really. Propublica says using dispersants means that “instead of having the oil collect at the surface, dispersed droplets of oil can spread more quickly and in more directions.” The dispersed droplets “linger longer in the water, collecting on the seabed and harming the ecosystem offshore.”

Toxicology experts agree that dispersants cause great harm to marine life and anyone exposed to them. Dr. William Sawyer, toxicology expert, said the dispersants being used in the Gulf of Mexico, Corexit 9500 and Corexit EC9527A, are “also known as deodorized kerosene.” He went on to say that studies of kerosene exposures “strongly indicate potential health risks to volunteers, workers, sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles and all species which need to surface for air exchanges, as well as birds and all other mammals.”

A report on oil dispersants by the National Academy of Sciences said that the use of dispersants “represents a conscious decision to increase the hydrocarbon load (resulting from a spill) on one component of the ecosystem (e.g., the water column) while reducing the load on another (e.g., coastal wetland).”

“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. “There is insufficient understanding of the fate of dispersed oil in aquatic ecosystems.”

Carys Mitchelmore, assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, told McClatchy, “There’s research out there that shows that dispersed oil is more toxic than the oil itself, and then there are studies that say it’s the same. The big questions are what are the long-term or delayed effects, and how will the different routes of oil exposure due to dispersant use affect exposed organisms?”

Given what experts are saying about dispersants, why did the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authorize their use? The EPA’s website claims that the authorization “included specific conditions to ensure the protection of the environment and the health of residents in affected areas.” BP can only use dispersants on the surface of the water, and the EPA says it is “monitoring air quality in the Gulf area through air monitoring air craft, and fixed and mobile air stations.” In other words, dispersants are toxic, but don’t worry, the EPA is monitoring their use.

David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council said using dispersants is a trade-off. Dispersants help stop oil from making it to the shore, but are “toxic to marine life.” Pettit added, “And just because humans can’t see oil on the surface doesn’t mean it’s not still in the water column, affecting marine life from plankton to whales.”


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Categorized: Policy & Government|

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  • edszvetecz

    These stories are wildly inaccurate and are not being specific to the exact technology being used. There are many different dispersants some are food grade and safe enough to be consumed by a human and others are built from synthetic polymers and very toxic. Unfortunately the ones currently used by BP are the later.

    There are many very green companies that have worked very hard to correct this problem for years and are approved by many states and in some EPA regions for shallow water remediations. In accurate and sensational stories like this one bordering on willful malice are making it very difficult for legitimate environmental firms to do their work.

    You need to be specific to the Nalco product and stop using the term dispersants and if they are all the same thing. The problem is not the technology but the same corrupt good old boy system between two large companies and the arrogance they have for the rest of us.

    Ed Szvetecz
    COO
    Aqua Advisory Groupe Inc.
    Information@zwd1.com

  • http://www.gina-mariecheeseman.com Gina-Marie Cheeseman

    Please, note that I did specify the exact dispersants being used. When I used the term dispersants after identifying what is being used, I am referring to them.

  • http://www.gina-mariecheeseman.com Gina-Marie Cheeseman

    I have to add that after talking to my uncle who is a marine biologist, I am not convinced there is anything that can really be done once a disaster happens like the one in the Gulf. The most important thing we can take away from this most recent oil spill is that it's time to transition away from fossil fuels.

  • jeffdelarosa

    BP says they're going to pay for everything. Exactly how are they going to 'pay' for all of the marine life which are dying by the ton?

    • Betty

      how are they going to pay for the more subtle, yet sure to be devistating, affects to the health of marine life that we consume. How do we know what will be poluted by these dispersants/and the effect in the long term in illness and birth defects, etc.

  • http://sharkdivers.blogspot.com Shark Diver

    Hurricane Oilmageddon

    http://sharkdivers.blogspot.com/2010/05/oil-spi

    The real eco disaster in the making is raining oil micro dropletts coming ashore as far away as Texas, the southern states, and large parts of Mexico, as Gulf hurricanes suck up millions of gallons of surface moisture and spilled oil. These micro dropletts of oil will rain down on rivers, lakes, farm land, and cities covering the landscape.

    “Oilmageddon,” on a biblical scale.

    • Betty

      don't forget that those droplets also have the toxic dispersants mixed with them as they rain down on everyone.
      someone also mentioned that the aquafir supplies areas curtain areas, as in Florida, with drinking water .

      Do the BP people think that they are immune?

  • Betty

    how are they going to pay for the more subtle, yet sure to be devistating, affects to the health of marine life that we consume. How do we know what will be poluted by these dispersants/and the effect in the long term in illness and birth defects, etc.

  • Betty

    don't forget that those droplets also have the toxic dispersants mixed with them as they rain down on everyone.
    someone also mentioned that the aquafir supplies areas curtain areas, as in Florida, with drinking water .

    Do the BP people think that they are immune?

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  • jose