by Elizabeth Grossman
"After three long months of oil geysering continuously from the depths of the Gulf, a temporary cap has stemmed the flow and it appears that the well is on its way to being killed. But we are by no means through this disaster," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in his opening remarks at the August 4th Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the use of oil dispersants in the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Gulf Coast fishermen and others whose livelihoods depend on the Gulf of Mexico's sea life know this all too well.
While the scientists testifying in Washington, DC last week agreed that the long-term ecological impacts of the dispersants deployed in the Gulf are largely unknown - "a grand experiment with great unknowns," said Sen. Whitehouse to sum up the testimony - the Gulf Coast seafood community is grappling with the more immediate issue of the safety of the fish and shellfish that they need to sell. Since the July 15 capping of the ruptured well, Gulf waters have been steadily opened to fishing. But fishing community responses to the openings - and to assurances of seafood safety from state and federal agencies - vary widely, reflecting the underlying uncertainty about what this disaster means for the region's future.
What Fishermen Worry About
"Fishermen think shrimp season is being opened too soon and don't want to sell their catch because they're unsure of the safety. They don't want to make people sick," said Leo Esclamado, coordinator of the Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families. "People are still seeing oil," he told me. And last week, he said, some of the shrimpers in his community were seeing "shrimp already dead in the water." Such occurrences make it harder to accept official assurances of safety. "If they can't vouch for the safety, they don't want to sell it," said Esclamado of the fishermen he works with.
Some fishermen have voiced concern that closure violations could get contaminated seafood into the market. According to NOAA, the Coast Guard has increased Coast Guard patrols and as of August 12, this is no longer a problem.
At the other end of the confidence spectrum is Mike Voisin, owner of Motivatit Seafood in Houma, Louisiana, whose specialty is oysters. "The science behind the openings indicates the openings should occur. Should we be concerned? Yes, but the [testing] protocols are very, very conservative," said Voisin, who was among those who brought Gulf seafood to the Whitehouse to celebrate the New Orleans Saints and President Obama's birthday. "This is one of the most tested and analyzed fisheries. I know Gulf seafood is safer than it ever was," said Voisin, who is also a member of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," said Esclamado. Not only are fishermen - and seafood processors - concerned about seafood safety, but as the surface oil diminishes, the need for the skimming and boom work fishermen have been doing through the Vessels of Opportunity program has been declining. "The majority of folks who started in that program have been deactivated," Esclamado told me. "It's a jobs issue."
He also said there was concern that money was now going to be spent on seafood marketing rather than on clean-up.
Esclamado's concerns coincide with those of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB). "Seafood is declared safe to eat, but every fisher we have talked to says they would not feed this fish to their children," said LABB program manager Anna Hrybyk via email. "BP is pulling out and the feds have started to talk restoration when there is still oil and water in the marshes. There is," she said, a "hastiness to get back to normal."
But knowing what is "normal" when it comes to seafood safety and overall environmental health along the Gulf Coast is one of the open - and disturbing - questions.
Federal Agencies Offer Reassurance
The current seafood tests focus primarily on oil and related hydrocarbon compounds, no matter what their source - whether oil or from dispersants. As Don Kraemer, acting deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition explained, there is currently sensory - i.e., smell - testing for dispersants, and chemical analysis tests for these components are now being developed. But, he said, dispersants degrade quickly and are not expected to persist or accumulate in fish flesh. Plus, they've been greatly diluted.
The question of what's "normal" arises when considering dispersants. Kraemer told me that, "All the constituents of these dispersants are also approved for use in existing consumer products," - he named toothpaste, stool softener, and other over-the-counter medications - so the risk for adverse impacts are low. "That doesn't mean we want to add to the burden, but fish are subjected to them regularly," said Kraemer. But, he also added, "We don't know what the background levels are."
In an attempt to address some of these concerns, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is now actively engaged in outreach to and engagement with the Gulf Coast fishing community - through conference calls, and on site with dock and port agents. "We're having a blitz to get into these communities," said Laurel Bryant, NOAA External Affairs Fisheries Coordinator.
On one such call, on August 12th, NOAA fisheries experts fielded many of the same questions raised by the Vietnamese American fishing community Esclamado works with, by fishermen at their meeting in Biloxi, and by policymakers. All are seeking more certainty about safety given the unprecedented release of contaminants into the Gulf.
"Over thousands of samples, not one has failed," said Walt Dickhoff, supervisory physiology with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center on the August 12th call. "Today above anytime in history," Mike Voisin told me, "we should have confidence in Gulf seafood. And we will make sure testing continues."
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.
I continue to be troubled by the social message implicit in this continuing story. However, some of the scientific uncertainty can be bounded.
As I understand it, the seafood is being tested for polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons - known carcinogens - and smell. Smell triggers PAH testing. Be good to know if there are elevated PAH's in absence of smell. There are EPA reference concentrations for some PAH's. The limited data I have seen from Louisiana Dept of Health shows PAH levels "well" below the reference concentrations. I don't know much about potency of ingested PAH's, or whether the reference concentrations are significantly protective. CDC publishes population data on PAH metabolites. Gulf population could be compared using same methods. In a short time, we could know whether Gulf population had higher levels and presumably higher risk than the general population.
Dispersant issue has 3 parts. Dispersants presumably make oil and therefore PAH's more bioavailable, therefore it's a contest between increased uptake of PAH in food chain and increased degradation. Dispersants (from MSDS) are sulfonate detergents, lighter hydrocarbon solvents, and an oxygenated solvent (OS) with oil and water solubility. These are similar to household cleaners and soluble oil metalworking fluids. Household versions use pine oil or lemon oil (in my opinion more potent toxicity although deemed "natural") rather than petroleum distillates. There would be no surprise if inhalation of aerosol dispersant had respiratory effects. For one dispersant, the OS was butoxyethanol which has know toxicity; we are told that dispersant formula was discontinued. The short term potency to shrimp and flies of dispersant, or oil-dispersant mixtures was less than the soluble portion of the oil. My opinion is that biomagnification of dispersant chemicals is distinctly less likely to pose a health hazard than the PAH's.
One minor clarification: OSHA and the USCG are taking personal samples independently of each other