Besides the heavy slick of oil still found several feet below the ocean’s surface and the sheen in the marshes of many Gulf states, another toxic chemical lies in wait. One that most people can’t really tell apart from normal drinking water. The oil dispersants used during the clean-up is extremely hazardous and has finally reached normal water supply.
An estimated 1.9 million gallons of Corexit was dumped into the gulf, these dispersants contain petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol, known to cause skin rashes and respiratory problems among humans. In fact, 2-butoxyethanol is handled extremely carefully among the workers (they can only be exposed to 20ppm) and US employers are required by law to inform employees when they are working with the substance. While the chemical itself is known to decompose when in contact with air in a few days, unfortunately when mixed combined to create Corexit, does not dissipate as quickly. In fact, there has not been any toxicity studies done on the dispersant. Though manufacturer safety data sheets conclude that Corexit has very low human toxicity, workers are still required to wear breathing protection and work in well-ventilated areas [Source: ToxNet].
But it’s not the dispersant themselves that cause the problems, it’s the mixture of the Corexit and crude oil. The mix creates, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which has been identified as a carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen. The dispersant mixes with the oil and becomes water soluble, which then evaporates into the air. This harmful chemical comes down as rain in addition to being in the water on the beaches, soil, wetlands, even crab, oyster and mussel tissue. Louisiana, Florida, Mississippie and Alabama are the four states heavily influenced by the spill and are also seeing the damaging effects of this chemical reaction. Fishermen that have worked in the cleanup efforts have noted severe health issues such as vomiting and strange colored discharge during urination. Doctors have noted internal hemorrhaging in those that work around the area as well. Others have noticed respiratory problems, severe rashes, ulcers, neurological problems, liver and kidney failure and even death. In all of these cases, doctors have found that the blood in all of the subjects contained either chemicals in BP crude oil or the dispersants themselves. Hugh Kaufman, a BP whistle-blower, has also spoken against dispersant, noting that “People who work near it are hemorrhaging internally. And that’s what dispersants are supposed to do … And, for example, in the Exxon Valdez case, people who worked with dispersants, most of them are dead now” [Source: Examiner]. This hazardous chemical has affected people of all ages from as young as 2 to as old as 60 [Source: AlJazeera].
While humans have been affected, there has been little research in regards tot the long-term impact of the dispersant on the environment and wildlife. According to Nancy Kinnear, at the University of New Hampshire, most of the research was concerned with short-term effects and “very little is known about chronic toxicity, biodegradability, and other consequences” [Source: Oil&Gas Journal]. In fact the Obama Administration recently stated that they were unaware of the environmental impacts of these dispersants. It is only after six-months that scientists are beginning to research the effects. UCF is studying the health of various dolphins in the area and tracking its eating habits to see the effects on the animal. The study is intended to span one year and BP has footed part of the bill, donating $10,000,000 million to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, who donated $205,000 to UCF [Source: Orlando Sentinel]. Greenpeace is also studying the effects of the dispersants on marine life, but concentrating more on deep-water coral and sponges to understand the impact of the spill and to see whether the dispersants are indeed harmful to these fragile creatures [Source: Popular Science]. According to an EPA press release, the Corexit 9500A is not as toxic as oil and the combination of the two is no more toxic than the two alone. Regardless of it’s toxicity, some scientist, like Professor Richard Snyder of the University of West Florida, believes that the dispersants are simply breaking up the oil into smaller parts and sinking them. A sample from the the ocean floor seems to suggest that there are numerous layers of degraded oil [Source: The Corsair].
The federal reports tested eight different dispersants and found them all to be less toxic to marine life than oil. While the dispersant 952A was used originally, it was replaced by the less lethal 9500A that does not contain the 2-butoxyethanol. Though the tests maintain Corexin’s relative safety, the sheer amount that is still being used will certainly have some future ijmplications.