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Have the Toxic Dispersants BP Poured into Gulf Gusher Ever Been Tested?

As the BP Oil Disaster continues to unfold, there is growing alarm that the “mitigation” measures BP is using, massive application of a toxic oil dispersant, may turn out to be a horrific mistake. From the Guardian:

By BP’s own account, it has mobilised a third of the world’s supply of dispersant, so far pouring about 140,000 gallons (637,000 litres) of the cocktail into the Gulf as of today. Some of the dispersant has been injected directly into the source of the spill on the ocean floor, a technique never deployed before, deepening concerns about further damage to the environment.

Yet it appears the primary dispersant’s toxicity has never been fully tested.

Tom Philpott at Grist, feeding off a report by ProPublica, has tracked down the dispersant manufacturer’s minimal filings with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Tom is trying to determine the dispersant’s chemical composition and find out what studies have been conducted to measure its toxic affects. But it turns out the manufacturer hasn’t done any toxicity studies specific to these dispersants, and it’s not clear anyone else has either (my bold):

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. 9500’s states that “Component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate,” while the one for 9527A has the slightly more comforting, “Component substances have a low potential to bioconcentrate.”

This is not what you want to hear about toxins being dumped in the sea by the hundreds of thousands of gallons. The EPA defines bioconcentration as the “accumulation of a chemical in tissues of a fish or other organism to levels greater than in the surrounding medium.” In other words, substances that bioconcentrate tend to move from water into fish, where they can do damage to the fish itself, as well as be passed on to predator fish — and on up the food chain, to human eaters.

And just how toxic is this stuff? The data sheets for both products contain this shocker: “No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product” — meaning testing their safety for humans.

Whoa. We have toxic chemicals being dumped into the Gulf in massive quantities, and not just on the surface where we have some experience, but deep under water at the source of the leak where it’s never been used before. We know that chemicals like this concentrate — from the lowest life forms up the entire food chain, to all the fish and then to people — an no one can tell us its toxic effects.

And yet we’re told by the manufacturer that it can’t reveal the dispersants’ exact composition, because it is a trade secret — as in, we can’t have competitors to undermine our monopoly because we’re making a killing. No kidding.

It’s hard to believe that no one in the federal government or the governments of surrounding states can tell us anything useful about the consequences, and equally startling no one is demanding immediate access to a full description of everything in this deadly brew.

Aside from the grotesque government irresponsibility this suggests, I can’t think of a clearer case for eminent domain.

Earth to the Obama Administration: Get the formula, now. Match it up with chemicals for which we already have toxicity tests. Publish what we know immediately. Get extensive samples as applied. Run as many additional tests on it as quickly as possible (knowing we won’t know long-run effects for a long time).

And if you haven’t done this already, you need to explain why.

More from the Grist article:

This is jaw-dropping. According to Ronald Tjeerdema, chair of the Department of Environmental Toxicology at UC Davis’ College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, who has been studying dispersants since the ’90s, “The industry typically only stockpiles one or two of these things,” and while Corexit 9527 has been the dispersant of choice for a long time, in recent years, Corexit 9500 has gained prominence. Yet Nalco has done no toxicity studies on these industry-dominating products now in heavy use in the Gulf?

They do appear to have toxic properties. Both data sheets include the warning “human health hazards: acute.” The MSDS for Corexit 9527A 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 remember the failure of Dept. of Interior’s Minerals Management Service in not performing a full environmental review. This is exactly the kind of problem NEPA was intended to avoid. A complete environmental impact statement (EIS) would have identified the mitigation measures BP proposed to use in the event of a spill, even a minor spill, including the possible use of chemical dispersants. NEPA would have required the EIS to describe the dispersants and their potential adverse effects and toxicity, and if those effects were unknown, that mitigation measure would not have been considered acceptable until sufficient studies were produced to confirm the dispersant could be used safely. In other words, we had laws to identify and avoid this exact problem, but nobody followed them.

Update: Well, this in interesting. Today’s NYT article on how the MMS systematically deferred to industry on safety and environmental protection, links to a March 8, 2010 GAO report faulting MMS on its NEPA compliance in Alaska:

Recommendation: To help MMS meet federal requirements in assessing environmental impacts of offshore oil and gas development, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the MMS to strengthen the agency’s NEPA procedures and ensure implementation of its agencywide April 2008 information-sharing policy by developing and setting a deadline for issuing a comprehensive NEPA handbook providing guidance on how to implement NEPA and periodically update and revise this guidance as needed. Such guidance should detail procedures for conducting and documenting NEPA-required analyses, including how determinations of significance are to be made and how scientific findings are to be reviewed.

Shorter GAO to MMS: You guys need a remedial course on NEPA, how to identify significant environmental impacts, and respecting science. Maybe we should just clean house.

More coverage:

ProPublica, Chemicals Used to Break Up BP Oil Spill Pose New Environmental Concerns

Guardian/UK, Dispersant may make Deepwater Horizon spill more toxic

Current/Green, BP uses toxic dispersants (and gag orders) to keep oil out of sight

NYT/Green blog, Chemical antidotes unnerving to some

AP/HuffPost, Gulf Oil spill; human health may be endangered

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley