During the BP oil spill in 2010, responders used chemical dispersants to break up the oil. Recent studies have questioned both the safety and efficacy of those chemicals. Other studies have suggested that those concerns are overblown.
So which is it? Are dispersants dangerous? Or are they not? And why is it so hard to figure out?
This week on the Coastal News Roundup, environment reporter Tristan Baurick from Nola.com | The Times Picayune, sorts it all out with WWNO’s Travis Lux.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity:
Q: In recent years there have a lot of concerns about the effects and safety of dispersants. What have some of the concerns been? And where are they coming from?
A lot of the concerns first came from the fishermen who were enlisted to help with the cleanup and from the hundreds of Coast Guard members who responded to the spill. There were also some folks in coastal communities, like Grand Isle, who said they were exposed. And the symptoms were pretty similar: skin rashes, difficulty breathing, eye irritation, etc. Later, there were reports of liver damage, heart problems, and some people who say they had gotten cancer from the dispersants.
Q: Just in the last year or so there have been several studies about dispersants -- ranging from how good they are at actually cleaning up spills to negative health effects. What has the science said to date about dispersants?
Yeah, there have been a lot of studies in recent years about them, and it’s been a lot of work just to track them as they’ve been coming out. There was a really large one that studied Coast Guard members. In that one, 2,000 Coast Guard members reported health problems from dispersant exposure. There were a couple of studies that came out showing that dispersant actually killed or weakened oil-eating bacteria – basically nature’s way of cleaning up spills.
Q: Last week the National Academy of Sciences released a big report that seems to counter all of that. It essentially concludes that dispersants are still a good tool for cleaning up oil spills. What was that recommendation based on?
This was a big-picture look at the all the research in total. It cast some doubt on the health studies. The main criticisms were what they called an over reliance on self-reporting -- where a cleanup worker basically says “I was exposed and I suffered these effects because of it.”
Another issue was no firm evidence they were actually exposed, or that maybe the symptoms came from something else, like breathing too much exhaust from a boat engine. Things like that. The report also took aim at some of the studies on ecological impacts – basically that much of the work was done in labs rather than in the field, where you have other factors like wind, or dilution from vast quantities of marine water.
Q: How have people responded to the report?
Some critics are pointing out that it was partly funded by the oil industry, and there were some industry scientists who helped write the report. There’s a sense that the report minimizes the negative studies about dispersants, and emphasize the research of studies from scientists who say dispersant isn’t so bad.
Q: If the question boils down to “are dispersants safe to use,” are we any closer to an answer to that question?
The report does say we need more research on dispersants, so it’s not giving them a total green light. It says they should be used carefully, in certain amounts.
Q: And what about the timing on this? Why now?
The Trump administration is working to open nearly all offshore areas to oil drilling, and that could mean more oil spills. So, there’s a sense that we need to have some clarity over whether we should use dispersants again -- because they haven’t been used since Deepwater Horizon. This report says that, in many cases, it’s a tool that should remain in the toolbox.
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