A Toxic Fix to a Toxic Problem

>As the Gulf Coast's ruptured oil well leaks anywhere from 5,000 to 60,000 barrels of crude a day, responders are relying heavily on toxic oil dispersants.

BP is stockpiling the chemicals from all over the globe, spraying at least 156,000 gallons across the ever-spreading oil slick. The company is also using underwater robots to inject dispersants at the site of the leak, an unprecedented maneuver that is sparking worries about environmental consequences. 

Dispersants break up oil to make it more soluble in water, allowing oil droplets to sink away from the surface. But the oil doesn't disappear-- it just goes somewhere we can't see it. Underwater, it is more likely to affect fish, coral, plankton, and shellfish. Dispersed oil has been shown to kill fish eggs, while the use of dispersants after the Exxon Valdez spill impeded the growth of certain fish species. Experts characterize dispersants as the lesser of two evils. They help mitigate coastal damage -- the Wall Street Journal cites officials who believe dispersants have kept the current spill off the shore -- at the expense of marine life. 

Apart from rerouting harmful oil particles, dispersants can also contain hazardous toxins of their own. According to ProPublica, the chemical make-up of the dispersants BP is using in the Gulf is unknown:

The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret under competitive trade laws, but a worker safety sheet for one product, called Corexit, says it includes 2-butoxyethanol, a compound associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses.

BP did not respond to requests for comment, but Nalco, the company that produces Corexit, said that COREXIT 9500A -- the version being used in the Gulf -- does not contain 2-butoxyethanol.

This does not mean that the dispersant is harmless, however. Protect the Ocean points out that "oil is toxic at 11 ppm while Corexit 9500 is toxic at only 2.61 ppm; Corexit 9500 is four times as toxic as the oil itself." Dispersants generally go a long way, with one gallon treating about 20 gallons of oil. But with the amount of oil seeping into the ocean potentially ten times more than originally estimated and a permanent solution possibly months away, dispersant use could drastically increase. 

Peter Egan of Total Petrochemicals U.S.A., which manufactures several brands of dispersants that it does not currently sell to BP, said that he just emailed the company to see if they could use a new supplier. The good thing about dispersants, he explained, is that manufacturers can up production to meet a sudden surge in demand -- a phenomenon the Journal reports is already under way.

Away from chemical-spraying planes, coastal residents are thinking up DIY ways to protect their property. Two Gulf women have organized a drive for human hair to be used in oil-absorbing booms. One pound of hair can apparently absorb a quart of oil per minute.

Presented by

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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