Posted by: Chloe Schwabe | June 8, 2010

Keeping Watch over the gulf: Toxic Soup

gulf coast spill

dispersants and oil in the Gulf of Mexico

The images coming from the gulf coast are heart breaking- a large, brown mass in the ocean, birds covered in oil washing up at sea, many dead aquatic and mammalian life, globs of oil washing up on the coast. This is an environmental health nightmare.

There are two main causes of the toxic soup in the Gulf of Mexico right now. One comes from oil itself and the other from the dispersants used to break up the oil.

According to Science Corps, exposure to crude oil can irritate and damage skin, cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and difficulty breathing in the short term. Long term effects can include liver, kidney, respiratory, reproductive, blood, immune system and nervous system damage, cancer and birth defects.

There has been much controversy surrounding the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil and move it from the area. BP is using two types of Corexit brand dispersants. In part due to the failure of the Toxic Substances Control Act to require that chemicals be proven safe before going on the market, these chemicals haven’t been proven safe for use. In fact they are believed to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with how and when hormones are released in the body. This has health implications for God’s Creation and the people of the Gulf Coast- in particular for the workers involved with the cleanup.

The Environmental Protection Agency asked BP to stop using Corexit and use a safer dispersant but BP has refused. A few days ago, NewOrleans.com staff writer, Karen Dalton Beninato, released BP’s worst case scenario oil spill plan. Environmental Defense Fund’s Environmental Health Scientist, Richard Denison, noted that BP didn’t consider anything but Corexit. Now why would BP decide not to consider or use the safest dispersants on the market if they really want to “make this right” as BP’s CEO, Tony Haward, promised on television?

Corexit claims its’ dispersants are safe because they are used in cosmetics, lotions, and stain blockers. This is a weak argument when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually has virtually no authority to prove the safety of cosmetics ingredients. Thus a number of personal care products contain endocrine disruptors, and chemicals linked to reproductive harm or mutation. Corexit is banned in Britain. This is a great argument on why we need safe cosmetics reform. More on this.

Long term health effects may not be known for some time. But already, according to The New York Times, a number of workers involved in the cleanup efforts even 50 miles away from where dispersants were sprayed have reported headaches, nausea, dizziness, and skin irritations. Other workers were hospitalized, too sick to transport themselves to care. Workers are not being told to wear protective masks.

The makers of Corexit dispersants also are not releasing what exactly is in the dispersants claiming it as “confidential business information.” This makes it difficult to know exactly what people and other species in the Gulf Coast ecosystem are being exposed to via the dispersants. They can legally claim this because of the very weak TSCA law that governs chemical policy in the United States. This is yet another argument as to why we desperately need to overhaul our national chemical policies so that workers and vulnerable populations are thoroughly protected. Learn more about TSCA and what you can do to fix our chemical policies here.

Update: Ingredients in Corexit were finally made public on the EPA website. Thanks to Richard Denison for reporting on this on his blog.

The components of COREXIT® 9500 and 9527 are:

CAS Registry Number Chemical Name
57-55-6 1,2-Propanediol
111-76-2 Ethanol, 2-butoxy-
577-11-7 Butanedioic acid, 2-sulfo-, 1,4-bis(2-ethylhexyl) ester, sodium salt (1:1)
1338-43-8 Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate
9005-65-6 Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs.
9005-70-3 Sorbitan, tri-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs
29911-28-2 2-Propanol, 1-(2-butoxy-1-methylethoxy)-
64742-47-8 Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light
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