The Impact of "War" on Gulf Oil Spill Must Be Assessed

Scientists warn of long-range health effects from oil, dispersants

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Here, in a one-sentence assessment by a U.S. Coast Guard commander, is what went right and wrong with the Gulf-oil spill clean up. As reported by the Wall Street Journal:

"My personal philosophy is, it is like a war and you have to respond with everything you have—overwhelmingly."

We were fortunate to have the Coast Guard at hand when BP’s well exploded and the company was found ill-prepared to react. The Guard is nothing if not prepared and, as a branch of the military, attacked the spill as a foe trying to invade our homeland. They did, indeed, throw everything they had at it, including, unfortunately, a weapon with untested side effects: dispersants.

The primary dispersant used, Corexit, is banned from use in BP’s homeland of England, but in the absence of large-scale testing, the substance was heavily used against the Gulf oil spill—even after the EPA revealed an ingredients list that included toxic elements. Even after we sued, the spraying went on, totalling nearly 2 million gallons.

The government declared victory over the visible oil, going so far as to claim that nearly all of it had been gobbled by microbes, and skimmed or burned. The EPA downplayed the possibility of health impacts linked to the use of disperants. Since then, however, a number of studies challenged government claims, and today more evidence is emerging in contradiction.

On the question of how much oil remains, a Florida State University professor today told a government oil spill commission that more than half of the oil has defied dispersants and now is resistant to them, lying buried in the sea floor or along the coast. The testimony aligned itself with the heavy skepticism shown by commission members about how much oil actually spilled.

In a separate report, Gina Solomon of the University of California San Francisco Medical School warns that long-term physical and psychological impacts from the spill are being overlooked. She notes that crude oil alone is dangerous for humans and other living creatures exposed to it, and points out how toxic ingredients within the dispersants have unknown effects. As reported by the Voice of America:

The U.S. National Institutes of Health is funding studies of the effects of the Gulf oil spill. Writing in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, Gina Solomon says that, in the meantime, doctors and nurses in the area should be alert to the possibility that patients might be experiencing symptoms related to the oil spill.

"One of the health effects that was studied after the Exxon Valdez disaster was psychological effects, and there were severe effects that were found even years later in the communities in Alaska affected by that oil spill," says Solomon. "So I think we can expect the same on the Gulf Coast."

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