Photo via John E. Lester via Flickr CC
Arsenic is a naturally occurring toxin present in minerals and also introduced into the water by oil spills and the wastewater from oil rigs. Usually, the ocean can filter out arsenic through the sediments on the sea floor. However, researchers from Imperial College London have found that the presence of oil in seawater disrupts the ocean's ability to filter out arsenic, which means it can build up and enter the food chain, causing anything from birth defects to changes in behavior among marine animals. That means the oil spill in the Gulf could be deadly in a whole new way in years to come. Science Daily reports, "In the study, the researchers discovered that oil spills and leakages clog up sediments on the ocean floor with oil, which prevents the sediments from bonding with arsenic and burying it safely underground with subsequent layers of sediment. The scientists say this shutdown of the natural filtration system causes arsenic levels in seawater to rise, which means that it can enter the marine ecosystem, where it becomes more concentrated and poisonous the further it moves up the food chain."
While the researchers can't measure how much arsenic is in the Gulf now because the spill is still going, they can confirm that the levels of arsenic in the water is going up with each new gush of oil.
"Our study is a timely reminder that oil spills could create a toxic ticking time bomb, which could threaten the fabric of the marine ecosystem in the future," states Professor Mark Sephton, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London.
The more oil allowed into the water in spills worldwide, the less ability the ocean has to act as a natural filter for arsenic. The impacts of a build up of arsenic in the food chain may be felt many years in the future alongside the many other enduring consequences of oil spills.
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