Today, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would require BP to use a less toxic (and more effective) chemical dispersant than the brand used so far. I wish, I wish, I’m always wishing for these actions to sparkle with government intelligence and initiative.
But it’s obvious that the EPA was responding to pressure created by media reports, starting with a first class piece of research from Greenwire and by resulting Congressional inquiries. In fact, the EPA appears to have stood passively by while BP dumped more than half a million gallons of the chemical dispersant Corexit into the Gulf, despite the fact that it had been banned by the UK. And despite the fact that the agency’s own internal analysis showed that this particular brand was not only more toxic but less effective in cleaning Gulf crude oil than others readily available.
Further, our federal regulators have done little – let’s say nothing – to provide the rest of us with any reasonable information for assessing the chemical experiment no ongoing in the gulf. As I wrote in an earlier post (Dishwashing in the Gulf), Nalco, the company that makes Corexit, has made public limited health data by posting a list of the three primary compounds in their formula.
The first, 2-Butoxyethanol, was actually removed from the latest formula due to human health concerns. But in its hurry to start breaking down the oil, BP used thousands of gallons of this older formula, stockpiled and easy available. Most of the dispersant, though, has been the newer formula – which has depressingly resulted in us knowing less about what’s in the mix. The only specifically named compound on the hazard list for the “new” Corexit is propylene glycol, which is not really that toxic but raises concerns because it’s known to consume oxygen as it interacts with oil, posing a serious risk to aquatic species.
The company’s safety data also cites a “proprietary sulfonic acid” but this is a basically meaningless statement if one is trying to determine risks to the environment, wildlife or people.
Oh, sure there’s a vast quantity of information out there about sulfonic acids, which are used in aa array of industrial and researchl applications. For instance, some are used as buffering agents – meaning they help maintain a healthy pH balance – in cell cultures used in biomedical research. Others turn up in everything from laundry detergents to pesticides. So the the toxicity range is, well, large. Nothing to speak of in compounds used to maintain cell cultures. Lots to speak in some industrial formulations: Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, for instance, which has been used in everything from fire-fighting foams to stain repellent formulas is has been linked to immune damage in animals and death in aquatic species.
And in chemical dispersants? Well, according to the Environmental Working Group, the mysterious sulfonic acid in this case appears to be the active ingredient in breaking apart the oil. But Nalco reports that, nevertheless, its particular formula has not undergone thorough toxicity testing.
Remember my wish for regulators who display intelligence and initiative? Maybe it’s a little late to ask for that in this case. But how about informative?. If our government cannot take the basic steps to protect us from risky materials, it make an effort to educate us on what the risks are. And since I’m going for alliteration here how about adding this word to the list: immediately.