Dispersants Used on BP Oil Spill Still Cause for Concern

Last week we wrote that, according to the National Resources Defense Council, various components of crude oil, such as benzene, toluene, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, present risks and are all known carcinogens. Other components of oil—mercury and lead—are also toxic and there are concerns that the dispersants BP is using in unprecedented amounts to break-up the spill are also toxic. Now, CNN is reporting that in excess of 1.8 million gallons of dispersant chemicals have been dumped into the Gulf of Mexico in attempts to separate the oil moving in from the Deepwater Horizon’s broken well.

Although not much is known about the potential effects of these dispersants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Coast Guard mandated that BP use a less toxic dispersant than what it had been using in the Gulf: Corexit 9500, said CNN. Experts are concerned about the effect of these chemicals, specifically the more discreet outcomes.

BPA did not comply forcing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to announce that the agency would conduct its own testing, looking specifically at Corexit 9500 and “seven other common, readily available dispersants” from its “approved list,” said CNN. The tests revealed that Corexit was slightly less toxic than the maker’s data, and new orders were not issued, noted CNN. “We need more data before we decide whether to change dispersants,” said Paul T. Anastas, the EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development, quoted CNN. “Our ultimate goal in all of this is to reach a point where dispersants are no longer necessary,” Anastas added.

“The only effect that’s being looked [in acute toxicity tests] at is death, lethality. That is a place that testing often starts because you want to know what concentration of the chemical will kill fish or other organisms,” said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, quoted CNN “But what’s much more relevant in predicting the full effects of the use of dispersants and dispersed oil are the more subtle effects—that are sublethal, that may affect growth and reproduction,” Denison explained.

Sub-lethal effects could decrease populations without killing organisms, affecting the more fragile and stationary larvae and eggs, said CNN. In humans, more information on dispersants are needed, including chronic and delayed effects, noted CNN. Human exposure, say scientists, is either direct, via inhaling, ingestion, or skin absorption or indirect, such as by eating seafood, wrote CNN.

Meanwhile, we recently wrote that two Louisiana State University (LSU) sociology professors released a survey detailing some of the health impacts the BP oil spill is having on people living in Louisiana’s coastal communities. According to Professors Blanchard and Lee, those impacts are “real and substantial.”

The two are not among the first to raise serious concerns about the health consequences of the BP oil spill for people living and working near it. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has now reported 324 cases of oil-related ills. Two hundred and forty-one of those cases involved workers on oil rigs or workers involved in the oil spill clean-up efforts, while 83 were reported by the general public. Common complaints include headache, dizziness, nausea, weakness or fatigue, and throat irritation. It is thought that at least some of those symptoms are the result of dispersant exposure.

In a summary of chemical testing posted to its website earlier this month, BP said 2-butoxyethanol was detected at levels up to 10 parts per million (ppm) in more than 20 percent of offshore responders and 15 percent of those near shore. 2-butoxyethanol is an ingredient the Corexit 9527 dispersant that BP phased out after spraying it in the Gulf during the early days of the spill. The same chemical has been linked to illnesses among people who worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

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