Let’s start with some slightly, okay, more than slightly depressing numbers: Since the devastating explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig almost three weeks ago, more than 1.7 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and more than 250,000 gallons of chemical dispersant have been sprayed onto that spill in an effort to contain the damage.
Everyone agrees that it’s the enormous slick of oil that we should really worry. But in the last week, questions have also been raised about the cleaning chemicals flooding into the Gulf. Although the amount pales, as they say, compared to the spill itself, a quarter of a million gallons of industrial chemicals is at least worth pondering.
Certainly both The New York Times and The Washington Post recently came to that decision. The Post provided a nice description of the way dispersants work, noting that “On a basic level these dispersants work the same way dishwashing liquid works on grease: They break up the oil into tiny droplets by attaching to the oil so it’s diluted in the water column.” But the article concluded that the environmental effects remained a troubling unknown. The Times came to a similar conclusion, adding that it’s difficult to assess impact when the full chemistry of the dispersant is concealed as proprietary information.
But the chemistry isn’t entirely as mysterious as such news stories might lead you to think. Nalco, the company producing the dispersant used, has posted material data safety sheets on the industry website Clean Caribbean & Americas. And these do provide some insights what’s being added to the beleaguered waters of the Gulf.
I’m going to address only three Nalco listed potential hazards materials here. One is a a solvent, with the rather daunting chemical name of 2-Butoxyethanol, which really needs a more memorable label since we use it so frequently. It’s in home cleaning products, from liquid soaps to glass cleaners, in whiteboard erasing compounds, in bowling alley operations as a pin and lane degreaser.
In other words, we wash this one down our drains and into our water systems every day, oil spill or no. Tests have shown that it decomposes rapidly, so that’s to the good. But 2-Butoxyethanol is on the hazard list for a reason. It’s been linked to anemias and autoimmune diseases and Nalco’s product safety data notes that repeated exposure can result in kidney damage.
A second listed is propylene glycol, which incidentally we also use – and even swallow – daily in myriad ways. It functions as a solvent in liquid medications, in food coloring, in bitters used to make cocktails, and in less palatable concoctions, from hand sanitizers to anti-freeze formulas. It’s far less acutely poisonous than 2-Butoxyethanol, but it’s a more troubling compound when added into places like the Gulf of Mexico because as it breaks down it pulls oxygen out of the water, making it a potential threat to aquatic life.
And finally, the manufacturer lists an “organic sulfonic acid salt” as proprietary, meaning that the precise chemical formula is not available. But, again, that doesn’t mean we’re entirely clueless. Sulfonic acids are gentled-down derivatives of the famously corrosive sulfuric acid.
As with the others I’ve mentioned, they also routinely inhabit our lives. In some formulations, they’re found in laundry detergents and in fabric brightening agents. In others, in pesticides and fungicides. Toxicity varies according to each preparation which means that we do indeed need more public information to better assess what’s going on in the Gulf.
But even without such added facts, there’s an obvious conclusion here. Every day we wash our hands, our clothes, our machinery, our bowling alleys using variations on the compounds now spraying into oil-tainted waters. Every day, these materials flush through our water systems, into our rivers, and eventually even our bays, gulfs, seas. So, while we may worry about BP’s dishwashing venture in the Gulf, the bigger experiment is our own.