One the major responses to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been the use of chemical dispersants, compounds that break up the oil before it gets to shore. But Propublica's raising an important issue:
Dispersing the oil is considered one of the best ways to protect birds and keep the slick from making landfall. But the dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own and can concentrate leftover oil toxins in the water, where they can kill fish and migrate great distances.
And the sharp-eyed sunshine advocates at the Sunshine in Government blog picked up on another element of this: We don't really know how dangerous the chemicals are -- because even though BP is dumping vast amounts of the stuff into the ocean, the dispersant formulas are secret:
In situations where the public interest in knowing what science can tell us about the chemical product we’re blasting into the Gulf of Mexico in a vast, untested experiment to stop a petroleum hemmorage in deep waters that threatens life in nature and livelihood in the Gulf Coast, the federal government, private companies and the industry they are a part of ought to do the right thing and make public all the science they’re holding that sheds light on how the government and private sector are responding to this very current environmental and economic crisis.
Now, the sources I have in this clean-up tell me that the dispersant is a lot less toxic than the oil itself -- but there are no long-term studies on the damage it might do to deep-sea biota and to the larger ecosystem. Not that they should stop dumping the stuff -- it's probably the best alternative, given a lot of bad alternatives -- but since BP is taking responsibility for the spill and cleanup, we ought to know what the impacts of this chemical solution are -- because the company ought to be responsible for those, too.
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