The dispersant is more deadly than the oil


It was no secret that spraying nearly 2 million gallons of a toxic chemical — the oil dispersant marketed under the brand name Corexit — into the Gulf of Mexico was a really, really bad idea. Indeed. back on May 11, 2010, or less than a month after the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, I issued a statement warning that BP’s willy-nilly spraying of the dispersant, which was endorsed by federal officials, had “the potential to cause just as much, if not more, harm to the environment and the humans coming into contact with it than the oil possibly would if left untreated.”

I didn’t pull that statement out of thin air. At the time I was working with experts like the toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer, who reported that the use of Corexit had turned the Gulf into a gelatinous toxic soup, and the chemist Marco Kaltofen, who found the toxic pollution came to spread deep under the surface of the Gulf.

It’s sad the see the extent to which our dire predictions were proved to be right. For humans involved in the cleanup, severe health effects like headaches and nausea have continued for years. Meanwhile, marine biologists and other experts have studied closely the impact of Corexit, and each study is more devastating than the next. Now, a new study looking at how the dispersant affects sea sponges is showing that the so-called solution to an oil spill is worse than the spill itself:

While dispersants can protect beaches by breaking up slicks and sending the remains to the ocean depths, the toxic mix of chemicals and oil can cause tissue damage and genetic changes to basic organisms, the study completed this fall indicates.

Jose Victor Lopez, a marine biologist at Nova Southeastern University, experimented with a sample of crude oil taken from the damaged oil well in the Gulf and the same dispersant used to prevent giant slicks from slathering parts of the Gulf Coast.

In laboratory tanks, he applied minute amounts of each, separately and together, to common reef sponges, the earliest and most primitive animal on Earth.

Though often called Golf Ball Sponges, some grow nearly as large as a softball. They are the ultimate survivors, dating back more than 500 million years and can be found along South Florida’s coral reef as well as in the Gulf.

Lopez, in collaboration with Florida International University, detected lost tissue and genetic changes — signs that exposure to oil and dispersants are harmful to basic organisms.

“We have evidence that dispersants affect certain genes by itself, and that it can be compounded when the dispersant is added to oil,” Lopez said last week. “The oil itself is less so. We’re very confident that we can say that oil and dispersants — and the dispersants might be even worse — had adverse effects on the sponge tissue. So it’s probably not a good idea to expose them, if you have a choice.”

That would be a understatement, in my opinion. The article goes on to make a very salient point — since the 2010 BP accident, the type of risky, deep sea drilling that was at the heart of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is actually on the rise. That suggests the question of another BP-sized spill isn’t a matter of whether, but a matter of when.

I hope to God that’s not the case — I don’t think the Gulf Coast or its residents could stand the strain. But if there is another spill, it’s critical that our key environmental policy makers are reading the scientific reports like this one, and learning that dispersant only makes the incident worse. As terrible as a second, large deepwater spill would be, for humans to make the decision to use this toxic chemical, knowing what we know today, would be simply unconscionable.

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinal story is no longer online, but you can read a saved version here:

Read my May 11, 2010, warning about the danger of using Corexit in the Gulf here:

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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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