To forestall more disasters, provide science education

Posted Aug. 23, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

As the initial capping of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico was completed, an upbeat press reported that the spill wasn’t as bad as we had originally thought. Why? Because the slick was rapidly disappearing from the ocean surface — evaporating into the atmosphere, and the onslaught of tar balls and sludge that had at first threatened the gulf coastline had not materialized.

In other words, the seriousness of this event was being judged by what was immediately obvious on the basis of a cursory, superficial, short-term evaluation. Even the federal government responded by reopening a large percentage of the gulf fishing grounds, on the basis of examining about 150 fin fish for possible contamination.

Would that the 200 million gallons of crude oil and the associated chemical dispersants actually dissipated so readily. Unfortunately, it is just not possible that this catastrophe will have so benign a conclusion. The reason for this assessment is perhaps not easily appreciated by a public eager for a comfortable resolution to the spill.

Crude oil is a very complex mixture, and 200 million gallons of it was ejected into the gulf through a high-pressure opening in the ocean floor one mile below the surface, an environment that we know very little about, and cannot control. The oil mixed with seawater and the dispersant, and although the lightest material rose rapidly to the surface, being much less dense than seawater, the largest, denser proportion of the crude oil must still be sitting on or near the ocean floor, or in vast water columns suspended in the open sea.

As this material continues to “weather” over time, it separates into its components, dissolves and changes in density. It will undoubtedly re-distribute in the subsurface currents and slowly disperse, most likely along the seabed where fish spawn. This can take years. And so millions of gallons of crude oil and chemical dispersants are still lurking in mile-deep ocean, and slowly, insidiously, but inevitably, their mixed byproducts will distribute in our fisheries.

The initial oil mix itself comprises volatile light hydrocarbons — the kind that make gasoline and its relatives, as well as the heavy sludge that gives us asphalt, and everything in between. Many of these compounds dissolve at least in part in seawater, and thus enter the food chain. These are toxic to vital organs in fish and other marine life; in particular, several components are neurotoxins. All compromise the health of the organisms they enter.

The Macondo incident is America’s Chernobyl. The analogy is not at all inaccurate. Both catastrophes took worker’s lives; both produced extensive environmental damage spread over vast territories; both destroyed livelihoods and affected major food sources; both have international consequences; both released into the environment huge toxic plumes (one airborne, the other waterborne), with long-term health consequences that we cannot completely comprehend at this time.

Above all, both represent stunning failures in risk management, planning and accountability.

As I see it, the fundamental problem underlying the absence of a vigorous outcry about the long-term consequences of the Macondo spill is the public’s uncertainty about science.

If there ever was an acute argument for giving our young people basic training in the sciences, this is it. A well-informed public, reasonably scientifically competent, would be not so easy to put to sleep. I believe that like this incident, most of our problems in the future will require for their solution broad-based, well-trained scientists who can apply what they know in order to safeguard the public.

A well-informed public will hold industry and government accountable for actions — or inaction — that harm us. An absolute, top priority for us therefore should be the education of our youth in the basic sciences. We must train here at home our best and brightest in the general principles of scientific inquiry, and this must start in our elementary schools. We have to train our young people how to think clearly about scientific problems.

Unfortunately, the “payoff” for this education is hard to evaluate except over time, and so science education is not a top priority for governments that want immediate returns for even modest investments in science programs.

David R. Colman, a summer resident of Deer Isle, is a professor of neuroscience at McGill University and the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.

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