Dispersants Use in Gulf Is Like A Guinea Pig Experiment

Senate bill would greatly improve testing and use of chemicals

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The response to the oil spill in the Gulf has exposed fundamental flaws in the current system for regulating the use of chemical dispersants. Since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, BP has added nearly two million gallons of dispersants to the waters of the Gulf.

BP’s use of dispersant is unprecedented—not only in volume but also because it is being applied under the surface of the water, at the source of the leak. Yet the potential health and environmental effects of the use of the dispersant are not well understood.

Last week, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Gulf Restoration Network and the Florida Wildlife Federation to force EPA to release health and safety information related to dispersants. This information is crucial for residents and workers who may be exposed to the dispersant and, also, for researchers.

At the same time, we need to take additional steps to make sure that decisions to use dispersant in the future are not shrouded in so much mystery and uncertainty.

The Chemical Dispersant Safety Act, introduced by Senator Lautenberg, would significantly improve the way dispersants are tested and approved, would require disclosure of dispersant ingredients when warranted to ensure protection of human health and the environment, and would give EPA much-needed authority to better control dispersant use.

Currently, the process for determining that a dispersant is eligible for use in a clean-up effort is inadequate. EPA requires only minimal testing to determine the toxicity of dispersants. EPA has candidly admitted that "the long-term effects [of dispersants] on aquatic life are unknown." Sen. Lautenberg’s bill would require testing to determine long-term effects of dispersants on both the environment and human health.


From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.