In case you needed more proof that Corexit is a Gulf killer


One of the many lingering questions as we approach the 5th anniversary of the BP oil spill is quite simply this: Why are toxic dispersants such as Corexit still considered a viable strategy for dealing with oil slicks? Indeed, the overuse and abuse of dispersants at the height of the oil spill remains one of the more poorly understood mistakes that have endangered the health of the Gulf, from 2010 right on up to the present. While lingering crude — the oil that still coats the sea floor near the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, continues to gunk up valuable marshlands and washes onto to beaches in the form of tar balls — gets the lion share of the media’s attention, the invisible impact of Corexit may be worse.

Regular readers of the site recall that BP — with the acquiescence of federal authorities — sprayed some 1.8 million pounds of this toxic substance into the Gulf during the spring of 2010. The use of so much Corexit did accomplish something — it made oil that was floating on the once-glassy surface of the Gulf disappear, so that it couldn’t be captured by the TV crews recording the British oil giant’s manmade disaster. But the use of so much dispersant didn’t make the Gulf safer. To the contrary, Corexit made the poisonous aftermath of Deepwater Horizon far worse.

This past week, as the 5-year anniversary draws near, scientific evidence that damns Corexit continues to mount, now in the form of two major new studies. The first one looked at Corexit and lung damage, including Gulf cleanup workers:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – New research from investigators at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests that Corexit EC9500A, an oil-dispersal agent widely used in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, contributes to damage to epithelium cells within the lungs of humans and gills of marine creatures.

The study adds:

“There were some 48,000 workers involved in the cleanup operations, and it is possible that workers were exposed to Corexit via inhalation,” said Veena Antony, M.D., professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine and senior author of the paper. “Cough, shortness of breath and sputum production were among symptoms expressed by workers.”

The epithelium is a thin layer of cells that provides a continuous, critical and a highly regulated barrier to environmental insults. Inflammation of these cells can lead to a loss of integrity of the epithelium, causing an increase in permeability across the airway. Swelling of the airway with a corresponding reduction in airflow also can occur.

Sustained damage to this tissue also may lead to an inflammatory response in the epithelium, leading to obstruction of the airways in humans with exacerbation of pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma.

The second study looks at the damaging impact that the dispersant has had on the coral population of the Gulf:

A recent study out of Temple University found that the dispersant used to clean up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was at least as toxic to cold-water corals as the oil itself.

“You have tissue falling off the [corals’] skeleton, you have dying polyps that are no longer feeding, the tissue can be discolored, they’re secreting a lot of mucus, so they’re definitely not healthy corals,” said Danielle DeLeo, a Temple doctoral student and the study’s lead author. 

Researchers from Temple University and Pennsylvania State University exposed three cold-water coral species from the Gulf to various concentrations of the dispersant and oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. They discovered that the dispersant used was at least as damaging to corals as the oil. 

These studies come after previous research — by both academics and by journalists — demonstrated Corexit’s severe impact. It stands to reason that dropping tons of a highly toxic compound into a sensitive ecosystem such as the Gulf would not be a good idea. And yet Corexit is still approved for use in major oil spills, even as offshore drilling spreads to riskier areas, like the Arctic. The best solution is not to have massive oil spills in the first place, but in the age of Extreme Oil, we need to pressure our policy makers to ban Corexit before the next, inevitable disaster.

To read more about our early efforts in 2010 to show the dangers of Corexit, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

Read more about the University of Alabama-Birmingham study into links between Corexit and lung disease:

Check out a report on the Temple University study on Corexit and coral:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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