Compounding the problem: Why aren’t we using the safest and most effective dispersants in the Gulf?

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

Imagine learning you have a serious disease.  Your doctor decides to treat you with a drug, noting it could have some bad side effects.  He also plans to inject you with the drug, even though it’s only been used orally before now.  That makes you nervous enough to ask for the name of the drug. “Sorry, I can’t tell you,” he says.  “It’s proprietary.”  Even if you trust your doctor, you’re now left with no way to investigate the risks and tradeoffs you’re facing.

Imagine how mad you’d be if you learned your doctor hadn’t told you there were other drugs that not only had fewer side effects, but were more effective in treating your condition.  And then you learn he’s on the Board of Directors of the company that makes the drug he prescribed.

Now consider that the patient is the Gulf of Mexico, the doctor is BP, and the drug is the oil dispersants, sold by Nalco under the trade name Corexit®, more than 500,000 gallons of which have been applied to date, with no end in sight.  The known side effects include short-term aquatic toxicity, but the potential for long-term effects has never been studied.  Nor have the effects of injecting it into deep water, an “unprecedented” method just been approved by NOAA and EPA after hastily arranged tests conducted over the last few days.  (Elizabeth Grossman has posted an excellent piece exploring the potential for adverse health effects among spill responders from both the oil and the dispersants.)

The information being withheld (in this case from the public) is the identity of the main active ingredient in the dispersants – listed only as an “organic sulfonic acid salt” on Nalco’s material safety data sheets – which comprises 10-30% of the dispersant formula.  (One observer maintains the unidentified ingredient is actually described in this 2001 patent, though its composition is quite variable.)

As part of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, EPA has tested 18 different dispersants for short-term toxicity to fish and shrimp.  EPA has also tested the effectiveness of surface spraying in dispersing South Louisiana crude oil.  How do the two Corexit® dispersants stack up against the competition?  Not very well, it turns out.  They rank 13th and 16th in effectiveness, 15th and 18th  in fish toxicity, and 7th and 10th in shrimp toxicity.  At least six dispersants are both more effective and less toxic than the Corexit® dispersants.

There’s no question the ongoing spill at Deepwater Horizon is a life-threatening condition, and emergency measures are in order.  And BP has said it chose Corexit® because of the large stockpile, though its cozy relationship with Nalco has been invoked as a factor as well.

Considering the massive public costs of this unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf, we should seriously question why, despite the clear opportunity for foresight via the contingency plan, BP is being allowed to use dispersants that are neither the most effective nor the safest.

And we should also question why EPA hasn’t used its emergency powers to force disclosure of all of the components of the Corexit® dispersants.  There couldn’t be a clearer case of the need for EPA to exercise its mandate to disclose proprietary information when necessary to protect public health and the environment.

Given not only the scale but the experimental nature of the use of dispersants at Deepwater Horizon, responders and the public have a right to know to what chemicals they and the environment are being exposed.  And those who will have to monitor and assess the health and ecological damages also need to know.

Both of these problems – a failure to drive the use of safer chemicals, and excessive allowances for trade secret protections – can be traced to underlying flaws in the main U.S. law governing chemical safety, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Among TSCA’s many flaws, documented by the Government Accountability Office and many others, it denies EPA the authority to develop even basic safety information for chemicals entering or already on the market, or to require the replacement of those shown to be dangerous.  And it bars EPA from sharing most data it does obtain, not only with the public but even with state and local governments.

Happily, change is on the horizon.  Environmental Defense Fund and more than 200 other health and environmental organizations are part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which is supporting and seeking to further strengthen the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, S. 3209, introduced on April 15 by Senator Lautenberg.  Join us.

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  1. Lynn St. Georges, CHMM
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I worked in EHS for years and if I needed full disclosure on ingredients in a product, I was able to obtain that in the event of a possible exposure. Why can’t we use the same basis and obtain full ingredient disclosure for the dispersents… or at a minimum, file a FOIA request of EPA? There’s no reason this information can’t be made public, either voluntarily or forcibly.

  2. johnplopresti
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I would consider adding FDA to the agencies of interest in the current spill, based on the food chain effects of oil dispersants. Perhaps Food and Drug Administration has lab reports on some of the menu of alternative materials. Further, I would consider international policymakers’ access to commercial interchange agreements for obtaining access to comparably ample stockpiles of the other materials instead of relying solely on the currently employed dispersant warehoused in continental USA. Perhaps the information barrier has some element of state secrets in the ongoing emergency, however; though, it would be interesting to read the legal memoranda mapping that sort of linkage.

  3. Rosina
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Why aren’t we using microorganisms to clean up this oil catastrophe? Dispersants “disperse” the oil. Microorganisms EAT the oil! I talked to a retired petroleum geologist who asked the same question. He said that even the smallest oil rigs in west Texas employ oil-eating bacteria on their oil leaks. Dead, oil-ridden places in northern Louisiana have been been brought to life again using these microbes, he says. Paul Stamets has cleaned up petroleum-poisoned areas with his fungi where no one else could. Who do I talk to to get this to happen? We don’t have to see our Gulf poisoned this way and doubly-poisoned by the so-called “solution.” I want to be able to enjoy my Gulf Coast beaches and see my fellow citizens continue fishing and making a living from the bounty of the coast.

  4. Posted May 19, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Rosina: Here are two links where you can submit your proposal:

    Hope they listen!

  5. josephguth
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    There is some movement on the ingredient disclosure issue under Obama’s EPA. In its recent advance notice of proposed rulemaking on pesticide inert ingredients, EPA proposes requiring full disclosure of all so-called “inert ingredients” in pesticides, and there are thousands of them. See 74 Fed. Reg. 68215 (December 23, 2009). That ANPR contains a welcome discussion of the importance of public disclosure of information. EPA ought to bring this same thinking to disclosures under TSCA.

    One of EPA’s principal reasons for its proposal under FIFRA is that ingredient content of pesticide products is not entitled to confidential treatment because it is too easily reverse engineered. This may also be true for most other industrial products as well. But we at SEHN proposed an additional argument in our comments, available at: We argued that FIFRA, like TSCA, authorizes EPA to require disclosure of information, even if confidential, about chemicals to prevent unreasonable risks to human health and the environment. We argued that unreasonable risks ought to be defined to include any that the market would avoid if it had full information about all risks. And that would require full disclosure of all ingredients, whether already determined to be hazardous or not. The same reasoning ought to apply to ingredient disclosures under TSCA.

  6. Lynn St. Georges, CHMM
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    EPA now has a webpage on the dispersant issue/controversy:

  7. Mary aka Jade Queen
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    I tried to go to the EPA site, and it was utterly frustrating. I wanted to second a suggestion that fungi be used, but could not find anywhere that was interactive, just a bunch of stuff saying what not to do.

  8. Rosina
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Richard Denison! I have submitted my proposals to the site, and to However, the openEPA site may have changed since you suggested it – as Mary aka Jade Queen discovered, it is distinctly un-user-friendly.

    Nevertheless, THANK YOU again for your personal and very encouraging response.