The chemical dispersants BP is dumping in the Gulf of Mexico are a cosmetic solution only. And they’re toxic
* By Joseph Romm Salon *
Last Thursday, BP began putting more than 100,000 gallons of chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico to disperse some of the hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of gallons of petroleum its undersea volcano of oil has gushed so far.
Chemically dispersing oil spills “solves the political problem of visible oil but not the environmental problem,” Robert Brulle, a 20-year Coast Guard veteran and an affiliate professor of public health at Drexel University, told me. These dispersants “do not actually reduce the total amount of oil entering the environment,” as a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report on the subject put it.
In short: out of sight, out of mind. But not out of the body of marine life.
Dispersants decrease the amount of oil that directly reaches the shores or the creatures that live on the shores or sea surface. But they increase the exposure to oil by creatures that live in the water or on the sea floor — like, say, shrimp or oysters.
I spoke to Carys Mitchelmore, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and one of the writers of the toxicity chapter for the NAS report. She explained that dispersants are “a molecule that looks like a snake. The head part likes water and the tail part likes oil.” The dispersant “pulls the oil into the water in the form of tiny droplets.”
And that means subsurface creatures — from oysters to coral to larval eggs — that might never have had significant exposure to the oil are now going to get a double whammy, getting hit by the oil and by the dispersants. Worse, the oil droplets are now in a form that looks like food (e.g., the same size as algae) to filter feeders like oysters, which otherwise may only have been exposed to the far lower levels of dissolved oil components found under a typical oil slick. The droplets can also clog up fish gills.
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