The “dispersant” chemicals used by oil giant BP to deal with the aftermath of 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have done more harm than good, according to media reports sparked by a Newsweek story this week.
BP purchased a third of the world's supply of the chemicals, Corexit 9500 and 9527, after the disaster released 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The dispersants are designed to break up the oil into tiny spheres, which then sink to the bottom of the ocean, preventing the oil from reaching the shore and damaging coastal properties and wildlife.
At the time, BP defended the use of the chemicals, characterizing them as safe as dishwashing liquid; and pointed to studies showing the dispersants have no carcinogenic effects. But Newsweek reports that BP disregarded instructions for workers to use protective gear when handling the chemicals, and one employee told Newsweek that protective gear was not used because it would look bad to the media. Now employees are complaining of a myriad of health effects caused by the dispersants.
This month, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released a report stating that the health affects of the dispersants went well beyond BP employees, sickening local residents and scientists studying the spill. The report, based on interviews with whistleblowers, accuses BP of intentionally lying about the potential health effects of Corexit, and failing to distribute safety information to its employees, amongst other charges; and supports the contention that BP felt the use of safety gear would harm its public image.
According to GAP, a Washington, DC-based public interest group, the health problems linked to the dispersants include “blood in urine; heart palpitations; kidney damage; liver damage; migraines; multiple chemical sensitivity; neurological damage resulting in memory loss; rapid weight loss; respiratory system and nervous system damage; seizures; skin irritation, burning and lesions; and temporary paralysis.”
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No clear scientific link between the dispersant chemicals and these symptoms has been established.
Environmentalists allege that when dispersant is added to oil, it renders the oil more “bioavailable” to marine plants and animals, increasing absorption of the oil into the biomass. Toxicologist William Sawyer, as quoted by the Huffington Post, claims that Corexit contains “deodorized kerosene,” which he says poses “potential health risks to volunteers, workers, sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles and all species which need to surface for air exchanges, as well as birds and all other mammals.” Sawyer says that tests show the absorption of petroleum hydrocarbon into the tissues of edible fish and shellfish in the Gulf has been “enhanced” by the Corexit.
BP has yet to issue a response to the GAP report, or to the Newsweek article.