Recent News on BP Spill Dispersants Reminiscent of Russian Toxic Rain Prediction

Image: Craig Anderson, Flickr

Earlier this summer, when the BP Oil Spill was still at the top of the headlines everywhere, Russian predictions of a toxic rain consequent to the BP oil spill were generally dismissed by the scientific community. But the cultural meme, as well as an underlying level of anxiety for Gulf residents, was planted. Now, reports are appearing that raise the spectre of the Russian prediction. Are people living on the Gulf, and even further inland, really at risk? Or is the only risk the diversion of dollars into lawyers' pockets?It is certainly impossible to overlook the source of recent reports of a Florida family sickened by Corexit in their swimming pool: a website called Florida Oil Spill Law. According to the reports, the Scheblers of Homosassa, Florida, became suspicious that their pool water was causing rashes, severe diarrhea and very dark urine. These symptoms are certainly consistent with ingredients in the underwater dispersant, Corexit 9527, used in response to the BP oil spill. 2-Butoxyethanol can break down blood cells, which would cause a dark appearance in the urine, and cause gastrointestinal irritation, an underlying cause of diarrhea.

The Scheblers were aware of the work of chemist Bob Naman on oil spill contaminants and their inland effects. They collected a sample of their pool water and mailed it to Naman for analysis. The results: an astounding 50.3 parts per million (ppm).

The Scheblers attribute the Corexit ingredients in their private pool to overhead flights of aircraft delivering dispersants for aerial spraying:

"At night we would hear very low aircraft, including helicopters. We figured they were just heading to help out in the Gulf," and Mrs. Schebler added that she was told, "The prevailing winds from the Gulf are easterly -- and when they spray, it is airborne -- and that we are right in the path of those winds." It was also noted that, "We had alot of rain here before my husband got sick, and wondered what was going on... We had been having daily downpours in July."
In fact, the 2-butoxyethanol is not an ingredient in the dispersant that is applied by aircraft. Because it is very volatile, it is not a good choice for use in a dispersant intended for aerial use.

A better guess would be that the 2-butoxyethanol is not degrading as quickly as might be predicted from the data, and the chemical is evaporating and returning to earth with rainfall. But the value of over 50 ppm is difficult to explain by rainfall. Such a value suggests a serious concentration of these chemicals relative to their probable concentration in the Gulf waters, which should be well under 1ppm based on reports of the volumes of dispersant used. Since the 2-butoxyethanol can only evaporate when it is in the uppermost layer of the Gulf waters, and the pool would have already contained a large volume of 2-butoxyethanol free water to further dilute the concentration in rain, this hypothesis can be dismissed. Furthermore, if the concentration of 2-butoxyethanol in rain, or on drifting winds, had been high enough to result in a pool concentration of over 50ppm, dozens of people out walking or gardening should be reporting similar symptoms.

Curiously, EPA water analysis reports do not mention 2-Butoxyethanol. As this volatile chemical is both a good marker for the underwater dispersant Corexit 9527 and an excellent target for study to improve scientific knowledge on the mobility and fate of this commonly used industrial chemical, the lack of data in EPA's public records is difficult to understand. Earlier EPA air quality testing did not find the two indicator chemicals at levels above the detectable "reporting limit".

So what remains is to imagine that the Scheblers are the victims of an unfortunate, but unfortunately not uncommon, industrial accident. With the increased demand for dispersants, the increased handling and transport may have resulted in a leak or other point-source contamination that has affected the Scheblers disproportionately. Alternatively, one can imagine that a sample in Naman's lab, where Corexit and its ingredients are commonly handled, could be contaminated during or before testing (although this fails to explain the alleged symptoms of Schebler family members).

Or this could be cooked data for the purpose of winning the lawsuit lottery. Is the real risk that dollars needed to combat legitimate damages caused by the BP oil spill (which may well include the Scheblers, only a jury can decide) will be diverted from where they are really needed?

Study of the mobility and fate of chemicals in the environment is a cutting-edge science, complicated by the number of variables and complexity of natural systems. The law suits that follow the BP spill incident will certainly stretch this branch of environmental science to new limits. What will the juries hear? Can they listen objectively, or will they be haunted by fears of toxic rain?

What would you decide? Did BP contaminate the Schebler's pool?

More on Corexit in BP Oil Spill:
Which is Worse? Washing Laundry or Spraying Corexit 9500 Dispersant on Oil Spills?
1.1 Million Gallons of Toxic Chemical Dispersants Now in the Gulf
Must-See Video Shows BP Gulf Spill & Toxic Dispersants Underwater
Chemical Dispersants 101: How They Work (Video)