Top to bottom, gulf spill brings death in the ocean

Posted June 13, 2010, at 6:33 p.m.

I just returned from the Gulf of Mexico where, accompanied by a London Times crew, I dove in the oily water laden with sticky patches of chemical dispersant. As a marine toxicologist, what I witnessed was a surreal, sickening scenario. Sea life in the gulf is facing death not only by oil and its cancer-causing components. The addition of toxic chemical dispersants may be causing fish, seabirds and dolphins to drown in their own blood.

Chemical dispersants may have prevented some oil from coming ashore, but the real problem is what we are doing to ocean itself.

Dispersants break up the oil into smaller pieces that sink in the water column, forming “bite-size” packages of poison all the way to the sea floor. Diving down into the murky waters, it was possible to see tiny wisps of phytoplankton, zooplankton and tiny shrimp enveloped in dark, oily droplets. Closer to the surface, planktivorous fish such as herring were feeding with gaping mouths on a brown pudding of death. As vital niches in the food web disappear in the toxic morass, we may not see all the sinking bodies but their absence will certainly wreak havoc on every higher organism — including us.

As the orange ooze invades the Louisiana marshes, it is increasingly obvious that the long-term effects of this untested chemical “remedy” for the gulf spill will be catastrophic — especially for top predators, including all the big fish, pelicans, sea turtles, sharks and dolphins.

It is death in the ocean from the top to the bottom.

BP has released more than 800,000 gallons of COREXIT, its “industry-insider” line of chemical dispersants, into the gulf. These dispersants are manufactured by Nalco, a company with ties to BP and Exxon Chemical.

COREXIT 9527, which has been sprayed in massive quantities, contains 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical that ruptures red blood cells and causes hemolysis (bleeding) when ingested. After this dispersant was sprayed in 1989 to contain the oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, workers suffered health problems including blood in their urine, and liver and kidney damage.

Its replacement, COREXIT 9500, contains surfactants and petroleum solvents that are bioaccumulative, caustic and cause chemical pneumonia if aspirated into the lungs.

BP has brazenly refused to switch to less-toxic, more-effective, EPA-approved dispersants. BP claims it does not have sufficient stockpiles of the safer dispersants for immediate use.

Despite arguments over “secret” formulas and data gaps, the truth is none of the chemical dispersants is without risk and their use on such a massive scale is unprecedented. Unless stopped, BP plans to release another 800,000 gallons or more of COREXIT into the fragile gulf ecosystem. The need for regulatory control of the reckless use of toxic chemicals in the U.S. has never been greater.

BP’s application of COREXIT dispersants in the gulf must be halted and the damage assessed for at least the next 12 months or more to determine immediate and long-term effects on marine life. An independent monitoring effort should be funded by BP and results be transparent and available to researchers and the public.

The EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration need to take a strong stand to prevent further release of toxic chemical dispersants to the gulf for even one more day, one more hour. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of marine lives are at stake.

Susan D. Shaw is a marine toxicologist and founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill.