Friday, April 26, 2013

1048. Three Years Later: Corexit Dispersants Worsened Gulf Oil Spill

By Susan Shaw, Marine Environmental Research Institute, April 24, 2013
Dr. Susan Shaw
Last week was the third anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in US history. Despite BP’s Disney-like TV ad campaign and the country’s collective amnesia, the Gulf is deeply damaged by this oil spill and BP’s wanton use of toxic chemicals to hide it.

In May 2010, a month after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, I dove into the Gulf of Mexico oil slick to assess the controversial use of Corexit dispersants on the then-hemorrhaging oil. In my statement as a member of the Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Working Group, I predicted the spill would result in a legacy of long-term damage to wildlife and chronic illness in people. As an environmental health scientist, I have maintained that there is no safe level of exposure to cancer-causing compounds in oil. I also predicted the decimation of deepwater corals, species long known to be sensitive to the Corexit-oil mixture, and the death of dolphins from unavoidable inhalation of the mixture as they surfaced to breathe.
BP sprayed and injected 1.8 million gallons of Corexit dispersants into the Gulf, toxic chemicals that emulsify oil to “contain” the spill and prevent it from reaching shore. However, the properties that make it an effective dispersant also enable it to move through cell walls and damage vital organs. For many species, the Corexit-oil mixture is more toxic than oil alone because its toxicity is synergistic. Corexit 9527 alone contains a solvent that ruptures blood vessels and causes internal bleeding and nervous system damage, an effect that was documented in Exxon Valdez spill responders. Banned in the United Kingdom, where BP is headquartered, Corexit dispersants have permanently undermined the health of untold numbers of Americans.

By sinking the oil to the sea floor, Corexit devastated the entire Gulf ecosystem from top to bottom. A recent study demonstrated that the Corexit-oil mixture is 52 times more toxic than oil alone in marine rotifers, zooplankton at the base of the food web. Concerns persist over fish deformities (shrimp with no eyes) and declines in the fish catch.

When I returned to the Gulf in 2011, dolphins and fish were dying in unprecedented numbers. I interviewed sick people living in “Ground Zero” – Grand Isle, LA. Some had been clean-up workers, others were simply residents. They had blinding headaches, heart palpitations, muscle tremors, memory loss, and skin lesions. One 14-year old girl said bleeding from nose and ears was common among schoolchildren. Read my Op-Ed "The cure for the Gulf oil spill is as bad as the sickness" published in The Times, April 20th, 2011.

Two recent publications paint a grim picture of corporate deceit and government paralysis over dispersant use, and the human suffering that has resulted. Huffington Post’s David Kirby tells the harrowing story of a diver whose health was ruined collecting water samples for NOAA. The Government Accountability Project reports that BP failed to protect spill workers, ordering them not to wear respirators for public relations purposes – something that the Grand Isle workers told me during my visit – and wrongfully assured them of their safety. It cites increasing health complaints, including kidney and liver damage, internal bleeding, memory loss and paralysis, among others.

BP is still on record for claiming that Corexit is “no more toxic than dish soap” and similar to the “emulsifier in ice cream”. If you are wondering why the EPA sanctioned the use of Corexit to clean up the spill when less toxic alternatives existed, the answer appears to be that none of those existed in sufficient quantities for BP to keep the oil out of sight. It may now be out of sight, but it is certainly not out of mind.

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