Calling all the dispersants!

June 2nd, 2010 by

Corexit still being used in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned BP to discontinue the use of the dispersant Corexit. Corexit is manufactured by Nalco Co., a company which BP has “diplomatic relations” with. A dispersant is a chemical solution used to disintegrate oil into smaller and finer droplets. These microscopic droplets then sink into the water. Before the EPA’s recommendations, BP had already used 700,000 gallons on the surface and 115, 000 gallons underwater.

Overhead view of Gulf of Mexico oil spill

The EPA gave BP 18 alternative, less-toxic, dispersants to use on the oil spill. Some of these dispersants have been shown to be twice as effective.  According to the EPA, Corexit is significantly more toxic than some of its competitors. It has also been found to be significantly less effective. In a test to determine effectiveness, the EPA found that 12 out of the 18 recommended dispersants were more effective on Louisiana crude oil than Corexit. Two of the 12 were found to be 100% effective. Corexit was found to be only approximately 59.5% effective.

BP has declined considering and testing other dispersants. Corexit has been called “a chemical that the oil industry makes to sell to itself,” by Richard Charter, the senior policy advisor for the organization, Defenders of Wildlife. Corexit was also employed in the clean-up of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Clean-up workers have suffered many health problems after, including a variety of kidney and liver disorders. These health problems have been attributed to the chemical 2-butoxyethanol, a known human carcinogen, found in Corexit.

Questions also arise on the effectiveness of using a dispersant at all for this oil spill. Dispersants are generally used to remove oil off the surface of water and to protect large quantities from reaching the shore. However, the source of the oil spill is located one mile underwater and 50 miles offshore. Due to the desperation of the situation, BP is forced to utilize such a large amount of dispersant.

An alternative to using dispersants is utilizing bioremediation to clean up the oil spill.  In bioremediation, microbes are used to degrade the oil. The microbes work by breaking down hydrocarbons found in oil in the presence of oxygen and other nutrients. The microbes can degrade oil more efficiently if the oil was already broken down into smaller droplets. Corexit has already been applied to break down the mass amounts of oil. Now may be an optimal time to explore use of  microbes. After the oil droplets sink beneath the surface, naturally occurring microbes break down the oil. Bioremediation can serve to complement naturally occurring oil degradation.

Toxicology expert, Dr. William Sawyer, has deemed Corexit as “deodorized kerosene.” He continued by saying that studies on kerosene exposure “strongly indicate potential health risks to volunteers, workers, sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles and all species which need to surface for air exchanges, as well as birds and all other mammals.” BP has already accumulated a third of the world’s available dispersant supply.  This has been the largest use of a chemical used to clean up an oil spill within the US. Hopefully the damage already done by Corexit is not as grave as predicted by the EPA and other officials.

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