EPA Tells BP to Switch to Safer Oil Dispersants: Good Move!
Today the EPA told BP that it must identify a safer and more effective dispersant within 24 hours, and must switch to safer dispersants within three days. This is very welcome news for health and the environment. BP should be required to use the safest and most effective approaches possible, rather than the most convenient or cheapest products. There are dispersants that have already been approved by EPA that appear to be both safer and more effective than the ones BP has chosen. Read this piece in the New York Times about the other dispersants that have been bypassed in favor of Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527, the two products used to date.
My colleagues and I looked into the toxicity of the Corexit products that BP has been using, and we had concerns, especially for worker safety and for the health of fish and marine mammals. The ingredients in these products - even the 2-butoxyethanol which worries me most - might not be a problem if used in small amounts. But when we're seeing over 600,000 gallons of these chemicals poured into the toxic soup offshore in the Gulf, even modestly toxic chemicals can become a serious problem.
At their best, dispersants are no panacea. My colleague Regan Nelson summarized the trade-offs with dispersants well in her blog last week, saying: "Chemical dispersants have the effect of mixing oil throughout the water column. During this mixing, the oil forms an oil-water emulsion, which is toxic (though not well studied). Because the emulsion is mixed with water, it has the effect of doubling the volume of the contaminated area." On the other hand, dispersants do seem to help keep oil out of the salt marshes and other fragile habitat and they reduce bird mortality, so they have some clear benefits.
I'm not an expert on the pros and cons of dispersants, or on their effects on marine life. But I do have some expertise on human health, and I also have some common sense. One important principle in medicine is that you pick the drug that is the most effective and has the fewest side-effects to treat the disease. As hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant was poured into the Gulf, I began to wonder if that principle was being considered here.
That's why I'm glad that EPA has stepped in. We need strong oversight of this clean-up. Nobody trusts BP to have the best interests of the workers, the public, or the ecosystem in mind as they make their decisions. EPA's action today shows that the Agency has the backbone to stand up to BP and that EPA remembers its mandate to protect human health and the environment. This announcement is a light in a time of darkness, and I feel strengthened and more hopeful about tomorrow.
Here is what dispersed oil looks like (photos from NRDC):
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