A surprising—and welcome—twist to the unfolding disaster in the Gulf Coast came yesterday when the EPA informed BP that the company has 24 hours to choose a less toxic form of chemical dispersant to break up its oil spill. BP must then use the new dispersants within 72 hours after the EPA approves of the new chemicals.
The dispersant BP is currently using is manufactured by a company with which it shares close financial ties, and it is known to be more toxic than others on the market. The exact chemical makeup of the dispersants is protected under trade laws, but Britain banned similar formulations of the same dispersants BP has been using more than a decade ago.
It’s not clear what the health consequences of the dispersants will be in the long term, but studies following the Exxon Valdez spill shoed that the dispersants accumulate in living organisms at very high concentrations and harmed the developing hearts of both Pacific herring and pink salmon embryos. A National Academies of Science 2005 report on these dispersants also included several sobering cautions. Most lab studies use the fluorescent lighting usually found in the labs when they test toxicity and chemical breakdown, but research conducted under conditions more equivalent to natural sunlight indicate that toxicity increases significantly after sun exposure—by 12 to 50,000 times as much.
It is good sign that the EPA has mandated the use of less toxic chemicals—but 600,000 gallons have already been used in the Gulf, and the leak has been going on for more than four weeks. This is also the first time the EPA has approved the use of these chemicals underwater—at the source of the leak. The EPA is requiring BP to conduct regular analysis of water and air quality, but this is the company that we are coming to trust less and less.
That is why we must take the opportunity to learn from how we have handled (or mishandled) public health emergencies in the past. We must confront this horrible environmental catastrophe while not forgetting the potential public health risks.
There was no federal entity assigned at the onset of other crises such as the Exxon Valdez spill, the attack on the World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina to monitor potential health risks. President Obama will likely soon appoint an independent commission to investigate the BP oil disaster. Part of its responsibility should include assessing the on and offshore health risks posed by the oil gusher and efforts to stop it. This should include finding out what is in those dispersants and whether there were cleaner, safer alternatives.
It’s good news that BP will have to switch to a less toxic chemical. But let’s just hope its not a month and 600,000 gallons too late.
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