Forty-seven days have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. BP has taken responsibility for the disaster, and they have been working fervently to not only clean the mess, but to plug the lacerated pipe that lies 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico. This sort of negligence is nothing new for BP, who was the culprit of the Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005 and the Prudhoe Bay oil spill in 2006.
So we’ve established the obvious – now let’s get into something that’s somewhat being overlooked.
Aside from the fact that 11 people lost their lives in the needless explosion, BP is using dispersants to clean up some of the surfaced oil. Dispersants are mixtures of solvents, surfactants and other unknowns (sounds promising!) that are designed to make oil more soluble in water.
What exactly makes up these dispersants? Sorry, competitive trade laws keep that information under wraps. However, they must disclose all toxic components within the amalgams. One such toxin within one dispersant (Corexit 9527) called 2-butoxyethanol has been shown to have mild effects on humans when exposed to a higher-than-recommended dose, such as nose and eye irritation, metallic taste in the mouth and vomiting. Nothing alarming was found to affect the heart and lungs.
Good news for humans – but what about the wildlife? Unfortunately, the animals don’t have such a cheerful prognosis. It’s axiomatic that wildlife would suffer as a result of the explosion and subsequent release of thousands of barrels of oil, but it has been reported that dispersants such as Corexit may only do more damage to them. Another version of the dispersants, COREXIT 9500A, has been shown in studies to be more lethal when combined with fuel oil #2 than the fuel or the dispersant itself.
Another problem is something called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), which is increased in intensity with sunlight – from 12 to 50,000 times according to a National Academy of Sciences report. Dispersants increase the uptake of PAH in fish who have been exposed to crude oil. Corals bioaccumulate PAH fast, but can’t filter out the toxin and eventually succumb. Essentially, subsurface creatures are taking a double hit – the oil, and the toxic dispersants. Bear in mind that many of these toxicity studies are done over a short period of time, and that the real effects and danger could be shockingly higher.
Speaking of corals: The oil spill, dispersants included, is heading for the Loop Current, which will put all of that garbage on a crash course with America’s largest coral reef – the Florida Keys.
The list grows: The dispersants draw the oil into tiny droplets – droplets which look like fish food to many filter feeders like oysters. Even more saddening, the droplets can clog up fish gills.
According to salon.com, BP has purchased one-third of the world’s dispersants to combat the spill. Additionally, BP is using the dispersants near the sea floor, as opposed to the more common practice of using them at the surface. This provides uncertainty as to the welfare of the creatures that live and feed off of the ocean floor.
Now, this all looks very unsavory and makes BP look even worse – but in reality, everything has an opportunity cost. One professor speaking with salon.com states: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”
The most logical thing to do to prevent future disasters such as this is to wean ourselves off of oil and look towards other energy sources. Until that happens, we have this to deal with, this to overcome, and this to prevent by any means possible.