Guest Post: Scientists Confirm that Dispersants Are Increasing Contamination in the Gulf

Washington’s Blog

I have repeatedly documented the detrimental impacts of dispersants on humans, wildlife and seafood safety. See this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

As I noted in September, scientists from Oregon State University found elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the Gulf, and blamed dispersants.

Now, the website of the prestigious Journal Nature is also reporting on the increase of PAH contamination due to the use of dispersants in the Gulf:

Peter Hodson, an aquatic toxicologist from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, presented his case on 9 November at a meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Portland, Oregon…

The problem, explains Hodson, is that the dispersed cloud of microscopic oil droplets allows the PAHs to contaminate a volume of water 100–1,000 times greater than if the oil were confined to a floating surface slick. This hugely increases the exposure of wildlife to the dispersed oil. …

Worse, the toxic constituents of oil hang around longer than other components, another speaker told the meeting. “This idea that there’s an oil biodegradation rate doesn’t hold,” says Ronald Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, who has studied the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Alkanes, the simple hydrocarbons that comprise the bulk of oil, are degraded more readily than the PAHs, he points out.

As the Press Register notes:

“These chemicals, these are PAHs that are carcinogenic. … These items are not in any way appropriate for anyone to eat,” said Ed Cake, an environmental consultant from Ocean Springs. “There’s no low-dose level that’s acceptable to eat.”…

[William Sawyer], the [veteran] Florida toxicologist, said the government tests do not look for total petroleum hydrocarbons in the seafood. He said his tests of Gulf shrimp have shown unsafe levels of the compounds, which can cause liver or kidney damage in a matter of weeks.

And watch this short video.

Raw Story reports:

Dr. William Sawyer… said… “We found not only petroleum in the digestive tracts [of shrimp], but also in the edible portions of fish.

“We’ve collected shrimp, oysters and finned fish on their way to marketplace — we tested a good number of seafood samples and in 100 percent we found petroleum.”

The FDA says up to 100-PPM of oil and dispersant residue is safe to consume in finned fish, and 500-PPM is allowed for shellfish.

Dr. Sawyer, who has long been a vocal critic of these rules, called the government’s tests “little more than a farce.”

Maine Public Radio points out:

We’re more concerned about the dispersant and the dispersant mixed with oil–the dispersed oil, if you will–than we are about the crude oil itself.”

Tests conducted in recent months by [University of Southern Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health director John] Wise’s lab, using human cell lines, show that dispersants cause cell death and DNA damage, which has been linked to cancer and reproductive problems.

WFTV Orlando reports:

Brand new laboratory test results just in Monday morning are showing troubling problems with gulf seafood… the results are raising a lot of red flags.

WFTV put gulf shrimp to the test by ordering raw shrimp over the Internet and shipping it to a private lab. …

Scientists found elevated levels of Anthracene, a toxic hydrocarbon and a by-product of petroleum. The Anthracene levels were double what the FDA finds to be acceptable.

The scientist who tested the shrimp said she would not eat it based on the results

I’ve also previously reported that dispersants were used long after BP and the government said they had stopped using them in July. Now, Cherri Foytlin and Denise Rednour claim to have pictures of 176 empty containers of ‘discontinued’ COREXIT 9527A found… With a ship date of August 10th. And the president of a county seafood workers’ association claims that dispersant is still being applied.

In related news:

  • An NSF-funded workgroup notes: “Storms are likely to resurrect the oil that is currently hidden from sight” — “Much oil persists” nearshore
  • A Florida State University professor says the oil is still there: “most of that Deepwater Horizon oil — as much as 70 percent to 79 percent of it —sank to the ocean floor, where it remains, sucking up oxygen and inhibiting life.
  • A University of Florida scientist says “clear evidence that much of the oil is still below the surface in subsurface plumes”
  • Alabama shrimpers find catch “coated in oil” at area open for fishing — Boat to be decontaminated
  • Instead of cracking down on BP, the Obama administration has granted “categorical exclusions” to federally funded stimulus projects by BP (and other companies), effectively exempting those projects from environmental oversight

Hat tip: Florida Oil Spill Law

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. John L

    When the spill was the lead story of every news agency in the country, BP and the government decided dispersing it was better than letting it float to the surface and reaching the shore. They theorized that the adverse effects of the dispersants would be short term and the oil would be “out of sight, out of mind”. The side effects weren’t clearly understood but assumed to be less than if all the oil reached the shore. IMO the only ‘effect’ they wanted to see reduced was the images of oil covered beaches and animals on everyone’s TV screen.

    It also didn’t help that BP would be fined for every barrel of oil that spilled, and the only way to calculate that amount was to measure how much was skimmed/cleaned/burned/salvaged. Dispersed oil can’t be recovered, after all, and can’t be measured.

  2. Marc Andelman

    And to think I was worried about losing the evolution race against China, where anyone who cannot survive toxic pollution is being ruthlessly weeded from the gene pool.

  3. F. Beard

    Logic would have precluded the use of dispersants in the Gulf. Natural oil seeps do occur there and there are bacteria that deal with the oil. Where are the bacteria to come from that can deal with a man-made dispersant/oil mixture?

    If we should have learned anything about pollution it is that nature can deal with natural pollution but not necessarily with man-made pollution. That raises interesting questions about the nature of man, BTW.

    1. Jackrabbit

      Nature can deal with man too. From global warming to collapsing ecosystems to antibiotic resistant disease to holes in the ozone layer . . . we are getting push-back.

      Thanks for keeping on top of this Yves. I have warned my family not to eat Gulf sea food. We don’t eat seafood if we don’t know where’s from. Interestingly, Congress just passed a bill to make our food safer (but I doubt it goes far enough).

  4. Jardinero1

    The concern over the spill and the dispersants is oversold. The biggests threats to the Gulf come from the persistant human economic development occurring in the coastal and estuarine areas of the gulf and along the watersheds that feed them.

    Enumerating only the biggest offenders I would start with the channelization of rivers and bayous, the creation of jetties and bulkheads, sport fisherman and hunters in the estuaries, the Old River Control Structure, the Army Corp of Engineers, the federal flood insurance program and the various state wind insurance programs in each of the Gulf coastal states.

    The state funded insurance programs are the worst offenders since they enable all the other development along the coast and in the estuaries. Elimination of federal flood and state funded wind insurance would do more to restore the Gulf Coast than any other single measure.

    1. DownSouth

      This is one of those “everybody’s doing it, so my sins are exculpated” defenses.

      It’s also called trajedgy of the commons.

      1. Jardinero1

        No, you misread me. I defend nothing. My statement was simply “dispersants aren’t a problem, here’s the problem.” I add that Gulf seafood has always been poisoned. Any month of any year there is always a place and a catch that you can’t eat. I live on the coast and I haven’t eaten gulf seafood for twenty years because I fear what’s in it.

  5. F. Beard

    Elimination of federal flood and state funded wind insurance would do more to restore the Gulf Coast than any other single measure. Jardinero1

    Agreed! But perhaps that requirement should include a grandfather clause to exempt the current residents.

    1. Jardinero1

      I wouldn’t grandfather anyone in. I live in the Galveston Bay watershed and I wouldn’t grandfather myself or anyone else in.

  6. Marianne

    I’m not surprised. I’m in southern Georgia and, in order to be a good citizen, I went ahead and purchased shrimp from the Gulf just last month. The cooked shrimp definitely had a chemical taste and odd texture. I won’t buy them again.

  7. deeringothamnus

    Most worrying is that mercury levels are rising in the gulf. It does not appear as if there is a robust program to study this issue. According to my limited knowledge, the mercury may be washing into the gulf from the Mississippi river, and originates from coal fired power plants. For that matter, one third of the mercury load in the US blows here from China, in that a smog plume is developing over the entire northern hemisphere.
    In other words, there are way too many people. I would really like to know why over population has dropped off the map of public discourse?

    1. Jardinero1

      Compact flourescent lightbulbs and their ballast have mercury in them and they are now piling up in landfills by the millions and millions. This country spent fifty years removing mercury from products and the environment. In less than a decade we will re-emit all the mercury because of a mandate to use compact flourescent bulbs.

  8. Expat

    Oh, come on! Deep Water Horizon is so 2010. Hasn’t BP suffered enough? I say it’s time to move on. BP has, so why can’t we? Besides, it’s the American Way. Look at Bush, Cheney, Rove, Libby, Gonzales, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell. They are the worst war criminals and human rights violators since Pol Pot. But are they being persecuted? Of course not.

    I say let bygones be bygones. What’s a little mass murder, torture, or cancerous destruction of the entire Gulf ecosystem between friends?

  9. Mollie Ruehling

    Fantastic work. Hardly anybody ever writes anything nice about introverts. Extroverts rule. This is rather odd when you realise that about nineteen writers out of twenty are introverts. We are been taught to be ashamed of not being ‘outgoing’. But a writer’s job is ingoing.

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