Toxic Chemicals Used to Fight Oil Spill Add to Gulf Coast Worries

As crews work to cleanup the massive oil spill spawned by last month’s explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, concerns are growing about the chemical dispersants being used to break up the oil. According to The New York Times, 160,000 gallons of these chemicals have already been sprayed on the ocean’s surface, while another 6,000 gallons have been pumped down to the leak itself.

According to The Times, the main dispersants applied so far come from a product line called Corexit. They had their approval rescinded in Britain a decade ago because laboratory tests found them harmful to sea life that inhabits rocky shores.

In the case of the Gulf oil spill, the Corexit chemicals are being applied to open ocean, so those risks might not apply. Still, safety documents for those chemicals warn that they must be handled with great care in their original form, should not touch the skin and can damage lungs, the Times said. The documents state that the potential environmental hazard is “moderate,” but “low” when used as directed at sea.

The use of chemical dispersants is often a “lose-lose” strategy. Though the chemicals are known to be mildly to moderately toxic, using them is considered a better choice than allowing oil to wash ashore. Even most environmentalists see the use of the chemicals as a necessary evil, the Times said.

Unfortunately, its hard to know just what risks are posed by these chemicals, as the firms that make them are allowed to keep their recipes secret. What’s more, the Times said that Corexit products are generally used in much smaller amounts to treat far smaller spills, and have never been used in anything that comes close to the current effort in the Gulf.

A spokesperson for the environmental group Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper told the Times that while the chemicals are one of the only means available to fight the spill, “it’s vital afterwards to really monitor what’s happening with aquatic life, with oil on the sea floor and things like oyster beds.”

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