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Speakeasy Science BannerChemistry is nothing if not a double-edged sword. The complex interplay of atoms and molecules is the very foundation of life (and better living) but that complexity also means that a even a slight alteration of a safe substance’s chemical composition can make it into something exquisitely deadly. So please give Deborah Blum, chemistry enthusiast and Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, a warm welcome, as she joins ScienceBlogs today! You may be familiar with Deborah from her most recent (and highly acclaimed) book: The Poisoner’s Handbook, which delves into chemically enabled murder and the invention of forensic toxicology. But you might also know Deborah from Twitter, or her great blog, Speakeasy Science, which has been ported over in its entirety. So belly up to the bar and say hello!

These are just a handful of recent posts; I only picked The Blue Man Mystery since it’s an excerpt of The Poisoner’s Handbook and I have a certain affinity for carnival and circus workers. There two posts on lethal gold, plus a salad murder and a potential presidential poisoning in the interveining span.

But the post I’m most interested in at the moment is Deborah’s most recent, on the chemistry of the dispersants being used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This coincides nicely with the piece up on Seed Magazine today, which comes to us from Charles Wohlforth, one of the first reporters on the scene of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Wohlforth asserts that the secret to cleaning up oil spills is that you can’t:

Eventually I realized I had covered the wrong story. The important point wasn’t that Exxon couldn’t clean up its oil spill. The point was, no one could clean it up.

By telling the story of the company’s incompetence, we had perpetuated the myth that real cleanup of a major oil spill is possible. We had left the industry free to say that next time, with proper preparation and equipment, they would be able to recover any spilled oil.

The truth is that when large amounts of oil go into the ocean, it’s a huge success to recover as much as 10 percent. More than that is rarely possible. Oil spreads too rapidly and reacts too quickly with the environment; and the ocean is a challenging place to work, especially considering the logistics of speedily gathering up a blob the size of a small state.

To really understand the fallout of the oil spill, we need to understand the social systems that produce our need for oil. Fortunately, we now have Speakeasy Science as a home for looking at those places where chemistry and culture intersect.