This week as I was skimming through the September-October issue of Audubon, I ran across a special report entitled Toxic Brew. Written by Carl Safina, a prominent ecologist and marine conservationist, he opens the article by suggesting that due to the “millions of gallons of oil and dispersants that have been pumped or dumped into the Gulf of Mexico,” we are about to watch a science experiment unfold that could leave deadly results. (Safina, Audubon, p74-79)
The article was quite interesting explaining how the Gulf is not only a major breeding area for marine life, but is also home to a number of crustaceans like shrimp and crabs, as well as oysters. For these reasons, the Gulf is very important to the United States’ commercial seafood industry. The article discusses marine life and the author writes in detail the plight of dolphins, whales, sea turtles and birds. As I read the article, a few sentences struck a chord with me. Safina wrote, “While laboratory tests show dispersants, oil, and a mixture of the two KILL fish, fish larvae, and shrimp, sedentary creatures are perhaps at risk from these substances. Oysters and coral reefs-and the people and other wildlife that depend on them-are essentially defenseless.” (Safina, Audubon, p74-79) I asked myself, “Just what is in these dispersants?” This question sent me on fact-finding mission.
There are a number of articles available on the internet that were written by or quote scientists, governmental agencies like the EPA and the Coast Guard, and politicians. Nearly all articles or papers show that scientists agree that the dispersants used are toxic. All agreed in the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” The problem is that is all the dispersants do. They break down the oil into smaller particles, which then sink below the surface thus giving the allusion to the public that the oil is gone. Sure, dispersing the oil has helped our marshes and our birds and land animals but they come at a cost to our marine life and sensitive marine ecosystems like coral that is found on the bottom of the ocean, which is necessary to provide protection for a number of marine animals.
The dispersant used in the Gulf was Corexit 9500. I found the product safety data sheet, which includes the following warnings:
PERSONAL PRECAUTIONS: Restrict access to area as appropriate until clean-up operations are complete. Stop or reduce any leaks if it is safe to do so. Ventilate spill area if possible. Do not touch spilled material. Remove sources of ignition. Have emergency equipment (for fires, spills, leaks, etc.) readily available. Use personal protective equipment recommended in Section 8 (Exposure Controls/Personal Protection). Notify appropriate government, occupational health and safety and environmental authorities.
METHODS FOR CLEANING UP: SMALL SPILLS: Soak up spill with absorbent material. Place residues in a suitable, covered, properly labeled container. Wash affected area.
LARGE SPILLS: Contain liquid using absorbent material, by digging trenches or by diking. Reclaim into recovery or salvage drums or tank truck for proper disposal. Clean contaminated surfaces with water or aqueous cleaning agents. Contact an approved waste hauler for disposal of contaminated recovered material. Dispose of material in compliance with regulations indicated in Section 13 (Disposal Considerations).
ENVIRONMENTAL PRECAUTIONS: Do not contaminate surface water.
Yet BP, with the approval of the federal government, used this chemical in massive quantities. Only time will tell if we were duped by an industry whose only interest is the almighty dollar. Perhaps this chemistry experiment will prove that it is time to take a long hard look at ways to create clean, renewable energy sources that preserves all life.