Water

Why Aren't We Using the Safest and Most Effective Dispersants in the Gulf?

We should seriously question why BP is being allowed to use dispersants that are neither the most effective nor the safest.

Imagine learning you have a serious disease. You doctor decides to treat you with a drug, noting it could have some bad side effects. He also plans to inject you with the drug, even though it's only been used orally before now. That makes you nervous enough to ask for the name of the drug. "Sorry, I can't tell you," he says. "It's proprietary." Even if you trust your doctor, you're now left with no way to investigate the risks and tradeoffs you're facing.  

Now imagine how mad you'd be if you learned your doctor hadn't told you there were other drugs that not only had fewer side effects, but were more effective in treating your condition. And then you learn he's on the Board of Directors of the company that makes the drug he prescribed.  

Now consider that the patient is the Gulf of Mexico, the doctor is BP, and the drug is the oil dispersants, sold by Nalco under the trade name Corexit®, more than 500,000 gallons of which have been applied to date, with no end in sight. The known side effects include short-term aquatic toxicity, but the potential for long-term effects has never been studied. Nor have the effects of injecting it into deep water, an "unprecedented" method that’s just been approved by NOAA and EPA after hastily arranged tests conducted over the last few days. (Elizabeth Grossman has posted an excellent piece exploring the potential for adverse health effects among spill responders from both the oil and the dispersants.)  

The information being withheld (in this case from the public) is the identity of the main active ingredient in the dispersants -- listed only as an "organic sulfonic acid salt" on Nalco's material safety data sheets -- which comprises 10-30 percent of the dispersant formula. (One observer maintains the unidentified ingredient is actually described in this 2001 patent, though its composition is quite variable.)  

As part of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, EPA has tested 18 different dispersants for short-term toxicity to fish and shrimp. EPA has also tested the effectiveness of surface spraying in dispersing South Louisiana crude oil. How do the two Corexit® dispersants stack up against the competition? Not very well, it turns out. They rank 13th and 16th in effectiveness, 15th and 18th in fish toxicity, and 7th and 10th in shrimp toxicity. At least six dispersants are both more effective and less toxic than the Corexit® dispersants.  

There's no question the ongoing spill at Deepwater Horizon is a life-threatening condition, and emergency measures are in order. And BP has said it chose Corexit® because of the large stockpile, though its cozy relationship with Nalco has been invoked as a factor as well.  Considering the massive public costs of this unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf, we should seriously question why, despite the clear opportunity for foresight via the contingency plan, BP is being allowed to use dispersants that are neither the most effective nor the safest.  

And we should also question why EPA hasn't used its emergency powers to force disclosure of all of the components of the Corexit® dispersants. There couldn't be a clearer case of the need for EPA to exercise its mandate to disclose proprietary information when necessary to protect public health and the environment.  

Given not only the scale but the experimental nature of the use of dispersants at Deepwater Horizon, responders and the public have a right to know to what chemicals they and the environment are being exposed. And those who will have to monitor and assess the health and ecological damages also need to know.  

Both of these problems -- a failure to drive the use of safer chemicals, and excessive allowances for trade secret protections -- can be traced to underlying flaws in the main U.S. law governing chemical safety, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Among TSCA's many flaws, documented by theGovernment Accountability Office and many others, it denies EPA the authority to develop even basic safety information for chemicals entering or already on the market, or to require the replacement of those shown to be dangerous. And it bars EPA from sharing most data it does obtain, not only with the public but even with state and local governments.  

Happily, change is on the horizon. Environmental Defense Fund and more than 200 other health and environmental organizations are part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which is supporting and seeking to further strengthen the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, S. 3209, introduced on April 15 by Senator Lautenberg. Join us.  

Richard A. Denison is a Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund.