Health Risks from Oil Spill: "Some of the Most Toxic Chemicals that We Know" , "Every Place Can be Ground Zero", CDC Advises "Everyone" to Avoid Oil

An "epidemiologist" is a scientist who studies diseases among groups of people.

So the following quote from Bloomberg caught my eye:

Shira Kramer, an epidemiologist who has conducted research for the petroleum industry on the health consequences of exposure to petroleum, said she is concerned that the risks are being downplayed.

“It’s completely scientifically dishonest to pooh-pooh the potential here when you are talking about some of the most toxic chemicals that we know,” said Kramer….

“When you talk about community exposure, you are talking about exposures in unpredictable ways and to subpopulations that may be more highly susceptible than others, such as those of reproductive age, people who are immuno-compromised, children or fetuses.

‘With the World Trade Center, there have been unpredictable adverse health effects to the populations that were exposed and not just the workers,” she said. “In this case, we have a soup of chemicals from the crude, chemicals from the dispersants and pollutants that were already in the water. Who can say how they will interact?”

Crude oil contains such powerful cancer-causing chemicals benzene, toluene, heavy metals and arsenic.

In addition, BP has poured millions of gallons of the highly-toxic dispersant Corexit into the Gulf. And see this.

Bloomberg also notes that the Centers for Disease Control has issued health warnings about the oil:

“Although the oil may contain some chemicals that could cause harm to an unborn baby under some conditions, the CDC has reviewed sampling data from the EPA and feels that the levels of these chemicals are well below the level that could generally cause harm to pregnant women or their unborn babies,” the CDC said on its website.

While they suggest there is no threat, the CDC simultaneously advised “everyone, including pregnant women” to avoid spill-affected areas.

While we must keep the risk in perspective – and while this does not mean that Gulf coast residents will suffer mass illness due to the oil spill – we should not underestimate the risks either. As Bloomberg notes:

“Oil is a complex mixture containing substances like benzene, heavy metals, arsenic, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons — all known to cause human health problems such as cancer, birth defects or miscarriages,” said Kenneth Olden, founding dean of New York’s CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, who is monitoring a panel on possible delayed effects. “The potential here is huge and we have to be diligent about protecting the public health and these workers.”

For the public at large, the threat is less clear because of the uncertainty about the degree of exposure, Lioy said in a telephone interview.

“I don’t think the levels are high enough for concern,” he said. “But this is an ongoing event. Every day is Day One. Every place can be Ground Zero.”

Because hurricanes could spread the oil inland, it may indeed be true that almost every place on the Gulf Coast can be Ground Zero.




Dispersants Might Be INCREASING Damage From Gulf Oil Spill

Everyone knows that the dispersants being dumped into the Gulf oil are toxic. As Iwrote Friday:

Highly toxic dispersants have been used to try to break up the oil. See thisand this. Not only are dispersants being released underwater, but the air forceis also dropping dispersants on the slick from above.

The official information for the dispersant reveals problems:

OSHA requires companies to make Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDSs, available for any hazardous substances used in a workplace, and the ones for these dispersants both contain versions of a disturbing statement.
Both data sheets include the warning "human health hazards: acute." The MSDS for Corexit 9527A [the dispersant apparently being used in the Gulf] states that "excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects," and "repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol [an active ingredient] may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver." It adds: "Prolonged and/or repeated exposure through inhalation or extensive skin contact with EGBE [butoxyethanol] may result in damage to the blood and kidneys."

And see this.

Indeed, the specific dispersant being used is more toxic and less effective than other alternative dispersants, perhaps because of BP’s connections to the manufacturer.

In addition, new questions have arisen as to whether the dispersants might actually being increasing damage from the oil itself.

As the Christian Science Monitor notes today:

More relevant could be the dispersant that BP is applying to the oil at the source. BP officials have hailed the process as a success, noting diminishing oil at the surface. But the dispersant breaks the oil into smaller drops, which might instead be spreading throughout the water column, instead of rising to the surface.

Similarly, Agence France-Press writes:

Researchers from the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology said the [large underwater] plumes were "perhaps due to the deep injection of dispersants which BP has stated that they are conducting."

The Christian Science Monitor points out:

It is not clear what this would mean environmentally, though past research indicates that oil can be trapped in the seabed for decades after oil on the surface is cleaned away.

Moreover, as Greenpeace marine biologist and oil spill expert Paul Horsmanexplains, using dispersants and oil booms are competing strategies. Specifically, breaking something down into tiny bits and dispersing it throughout a mile-plus deep and hundreds-miles wide region (the reason massive amounts of dispersants are being applied at the 5,000 foot-deep spill site as well as at the surface) makes it more difficult to cordon off and contain oil on the surface (the reason booms are being used).
Shouldn’t the use of dispersants be stopped until scientists figure out whether they will make things better or worse?
Update: Even "Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the crisis, said the breakup has complicated the cleanup. "



Hurricanes Could Spread Gulf Oil Inland’s Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski points out today that hurricanes may spread the Gulf oil inland:

While the oil leak disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is bad enough, many people have been wondering what could happen if a hurricane were to slam into the region. hurricane expert Joe Bastardi is concerned by multiple threats from storms throughout the season in the Gulf of Mexico.

[According to predictions for an active hurricane season this year], much of the central and western Gulf of Mexico could be one of several targets for potential multiple tropical storm and/or hurricane landfalls this year.

Depending on the approach of a tropical storm or hurricane, increasing winds and building, massive seas would first halt containment operations.

Rough seas would dislodge or destroy protective booms, rendering them useless as the storm draws closer.

Next, as the storm rolls through, high winds on the right flank of a hurricane making landfall would cause some oil to become airborne in blowing spray. A storm surge could carry contaminants inland beyond bays, marshes and beaches to well developed locations.

Even a glancing blow from a hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick could be enough for winds and wave action to drive the goo nearby onshore, or to more distant fishing and recreation areas, perhaps in foreign waters.

During the age of sail, winds occasionally blew ships hundreds of miles off course. The wind could have the same effect on the oil slick.

Now, imagine several storms during the season doing the same thing.

Hurricanes are powered by the heat released when moist air rises. As McClatchynotes, it is possible that the oil might slow down the hurricane formation process in the oil spill zone itself by reducing the evaporation of seawater:

Oil wouldn’t have an effect on the track of the storm or the intensity, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

He added, though, that a hurricane or tropical storm might have trouble forming in or near an oil slick.

"Oil itself suppresses evaporation of the ocean’s water," Feltgen said. "Tropical cyclones require a good amount of that moisture for those deep thunderstorms to develop, so it could slow down the genesis process."

Masters said while there are different theories on what happens when storms and oil mix, it’s difficult to tell until it happens.

"It’s kind of an open question," he said. "We don’t know what would happen, but if they don’t clean up the oil spill by September, then we definitely could see some hurricane and oil spill interaction.

In other words, it may be less likely that a hurricane could spill right in the spill zone; but hurricanes could easily form outside of the spill zone and then interact with oil as they moved towards shore.

Oil is toxic for humans, containing many different compounds:

Oil contains a mixture of chemicals. The main ingredients are various hydrocarbons, some of which can cause cancer (eg. the PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons); other hydrocarbons can cause skin and airway irritation. There are also certain volatile hydrocarbons called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which can cause cancer and neurologic and reproductive harm. Oil also contains traces of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.

The oil in the Gulf is also unrefined, unlike the stuff you pour into your car. It also comes from the deepest oil well ever drilled, and it is possible that the chemistry is different at such great depths due to pressure, heat or other factors. So it is hard to tell at this point whether it is more or less toxic than standard, refined oil (Coast Guard chemists have tested the oil, but – to date – no reports have been made public.)

In addition, highly toxic dispersants have been used to try to break up the oil. Seethis and this. Not only are dispersants being released underwater, but the air force is also dropping dispersants on the slick from above.

The official information for the dispersant reveals problems:

OSHA requires companies to make Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDSs, available for any hazardous substances used in a workplace, and the ones for these dispersants both contain versions of a disturbing statement.
Both data sheets include the warning "human health hazards: acute." The MSDS for Corexit 9527A [the dispersant apparently being used in the Gulf] states that "excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects," and "repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol [an active ingredient] may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver." It adds: "Prolonged and/or repeated exposure through inhalation or extensive skin contact with EGBE [butoxyethanol] may result in damage to the blood and kidneys."

The bottom line is that hurricanes could very well spread the damage from the Gulf oil spill.

In the best case scenario, the gusher will have been capped and some cleanup commenced by the time the first hurricane hits the Gulf, the hurricane will be small, and the effects minimal.

In the worst case scenario, a major hurricane could spread toxic compounds inland onto crops. It could also aerosolize and then spread toxic chemicals, causing serious health problems for local residents – especially children, the elderly and those already at risk.

Is Using Dispersants on the BP Gulf Oil Spill Fighting Pollution with Pollution?

It remains unclear what impact chemical dispersants will have on sea life–and only the massive, uncontrolled experiment being run in the Gulf of Mexico will tell

By David Biello


AERIAL ASSAULT: Some 3.5 million liters of dispersants were applied to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, including spraying from aircraft like this U.S. Air Force C-130 on May 5.

Roughly five million liters of dispersants have now been used to break up the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, making this the largest use of such chemicals in U.S. history. If it continues for 10 months, as long as Mexico’s Ixtoc 1 blowout in 1979 in the same region, the Macondo well disaster has a good chance of achieving the largest global use of these chemicals, surpassing 10 million liters.
And there is no doubt that dispersants are toxic: Both types of the dispersal compound COREXIT used in the Gulf so far are capable of killing or depressing the growth of a wide range of aquatic species, ranging from phytoplankton to fish. "It’s a trade-off decision to lessen the overall environmental impact," explained marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at a press conference on May 12. "When an oil spill occurs, there are no good outcomes."
The trade-off in this case is the addition of toxic chemicals in a bid to protect the marshes of Louisiana and the beaches of Florida. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for one, has become concerned about the toxicity of the most-used dispersant at the Gulf of Mexico spill—COREXIT 9500—and ordered BP to look at alternatives. (COREXIT 9527 was used earlier during the spill, but it was discontinued because it was considered too toxic.)
The problem? The EPA’s industry-generated data is unclear as to the relative toxicity of various dispersants. "If you think the data on COREXIT is bad, try to find any decent toxicology data on the alternatives," says toxicologist Carys Mitchelmore of the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, who helped write a 2005 National Research Council (NRC) report on dispersants. "I couldn’t compare and contrast which one was more toxic than the other based on that."
Dispersed oil
Both COREXIT 9500 and 9527 are produced by Naperville, Ill.–based Nalco, a company better known for its water purification work with the oil industry. "For every barrel of oil produced, 3.5 barrels of water are produced," explains chemist Mani Ramesh, chief technology officer for Nalco. "That needs to be treated before it can be released. That water treatment has been a core area for us."
But at the same time Nalco keeps busy cleaning the oil industry’s water, it also provides COREXIT, a product to minimize the impact of any oil that spills into the water. Developed in a joint venture with ExxonMobil, the compound is largely made at facilities in Sugarland, Tex., and Garyville, La. The company expects to sell some $40-million worth of COREXIT as a result of the latest spill. "What the dispersant process enables is to prevent the oil from reaching the shore and converts that oil to easy food for naturally occurring microbes," Ramesh says. "If the oil reaches the shore the decomposition rate of oil is so low it would remain on the shore for probably 100 years."
By last week, the EPA and Nalco had both released the ingredient list for COREXIT 9500 in response to widespread public concern. Its constituents include butanedioic acid (a wetting agent in cosmetics), sorbitan (found in everything from baby bath to food), and petroleum distillates in varying proportions—and it decomposes almost entirely in 28 days. "All six [ingredients] are used in day-to-day life—in mouthwash, toothpaste, ice cream, pickles," Ramesh argues. "We believe COREXIT 9500 is very safe."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees, noting in a document for health professionals that "the dispersants contain proven, biodegradable and low-toxicity surfactants," which are "detergentlike" and "in low toxicity solvents."
However, those solvents—petroleum distillates—are also known animal carcinogens, according to toxicology data, and make up 10 to 30 percent of a given volume of COREXIT. And those same everyday products can be deadly to wildlife. "It’s the same products in Dawn dishwasher soap," Mitchelmore notes, which is being used widely to clean up oiled birds and other animals. "I wouldn’t want to put a fish in Dawn dishwashing soap either. That would kill it."
As a result, the EPA ordered BP to stop spraying dispersants on the oil slick on May 26. The EPA also ordered BP to look for less toxic alternatives on May 20, and the company responded in a letter dated that same day that "BP continues to believe that COREXIT EC9500A is the best alternative." The dispersant continues to be sprayed onto the ongoing oil spill.
No alternative
One reason BP can make such claims is due to a lack of clear data on any of the alternative dispersants. As part of the National Contingency Plan required for offshore drilling, one of 18 EPA-approved dispersants must be on hand to handle spilled oil. Each of those dispersants has been preapproved for use, and each of those dispersants has been tested—by the companies that make them—for toxicity using representative species of estuarine shrimp (Mysidopsis bahia) and fish (Menidia beryllina). Specifically, these animals are exposed to a mix of one liter of dispersant for every 10 liters of heavy fuel oil in water.
Yet, the results of those tests vary wildly, from toxic impacts occurring at levels of just 2.6 parts per million for COREXIT to 100 ppm for another dispersant, NOKOMIS 3-F4. That suggests to experts that the tests which showed lower toxicity may have employed heavy fuel oil that had lost its potency. After all, volatile organic compounds in oil evaporate quickly when exposed to air and can even wash off in water. "These are order of magnitude differences," Mitchelmore notes. "A lot of that can relate to how those tests were set up."
Adds Nalco toxicologist Sergio Alex Villalobos, "If the oil is aged, then the oil loses its toxicity. Using an oil that is not very toxic, if you disperse that oil you are going to get very favorable numbers. Do those numbers really exist?"
EPA, for its part, did not show the best understanding of toxicological data in making its recommendations, urging BP to use dispersants with less than a certain cutoff of toxicity (pdf). Of course, in toxicology the lower the concentration the more toxic a given substance is. "They completely got that wrong," Mitchelmore says. EPA is now undertaking its own toxicology testing of COREXIT and Louisiana crude oil, but results are pending.
Nevertheless, just 20 ppm of COREXIT 9500—or one drop in 2.5 liters of water—inhibits growth of Skeletonema costatum, a Gulf of Mexico diatom, according to toxicology test data presented in the 2005 NRC report. It appears to inhibit the phytoplankton’s ability to perform photosynthesis, specifically blocking part of the biochemistry that enables the photosystem II complex, Villalobos says. "Skeletonema seems to fall among the most sensitive ones," he says. "Like many aquatic plants, these are organisms that are resilient, that tend to come back even though you wipe them out in some cases chemically."
COREXIT is also not approved for use in U.K. waters because it fails the so-called "limpet test". That test involves spraying the dispersant and oil on rocks and seeing if limpets (a type of small mollusk) can still cling to them, a test which COREXIT and many other dispersants with slippery surfactants fail. "This is not a product for rocky shores," Villalobos says. "These are only for open sea waters."
Novel use
Of course, in the case of the oil spewing from BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, COREXIT is being used in another unapproved way. A wand from one of the remote-operated robots has sprayed more than 1.5 million liters of dispersants directly onto the escaping oil and natural gas roughly 1,500 meters beneath the ocean’s surface. "I don’t think anybody knows what would happen by applying the dispersants at depth," Ramesh says. "We do not have any knowledge that would allow us to predict what would happen."
In addition to creating subsurface plumes (and providing a rich feast for oil-eating microbes), it remains unclear what kind of dosage of dispersed oil sea life throughout the water column is facing. NOAA measurements show that levels reach 100 ppm of dispersed oil in the first half-meter of water, dropping to 12.5 ppm at 10 meters and unknown levels even deeper. "There isn’t any information on what is the environmentally relevant level of dispersant," Mitchelmore notes. "Dispersed oils are going to be toxic, particularly in the top 10 meters that contains all the sensitive life stages. Anything that has sensitive membranes can be affected by dispersants and dispersed oil."
Sunlight falling on the dispersed oil may make the problem worse through a phenomenon known as phototoxicity. Compounds in the oil act as a catalyst to transfer some of the sun’s energy into oxygen, converting the latter to a more reactive state that can literally burn up cells. And as fish and other sea life ingest the dispersed oil, it can be broken down into more toxic by-products. "What do these things break down into?" Mitchelmore says. "In toxicology it’s quite often not the original compound that’s the toxic entity."
Ultimately, the problem is that too little is known about the dispersants and the dispersed oil. "Given that this is a billion-dollar industry, why were those data gaps not filled?" Mitchelmore asks. "The whole issue regarding limited toxicity data—that’s not just common to dispersants, that’s common to tens of thousands of chemicals we’re putting out into the environment daily."
After all, it was only after decades of using bisphenol A, polybrominated flame retardants and other chemicals that significant concerns began to manifest. In effect, usage replaced safety testing—and that’s exactly what is happening with dispersants and the massive spill in the Gulf. Different regulation of chemicals and the chemical industry might forestall toxicological mysteries like those surrounding dispersants—and their thousands of chemical cousins—in the future.
"We’re using an awful lot of dispersants," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson during the same May 12 press briefing on the chemical‘s use at which NOAA’s Lubchenco spoke. "This is going on longer than one might have known on day three or four. We’re still dealing with a constant release of fresh oil and we need to continue to disperse."