Out of Sight: Dispersed Oil’s High Price

Spring cleaning comes and I have to leave the room. Many of the grocery store cleaning agents one might expect to see used for such a project give me the weird-head.

I have a low threshold for such solvents, first noticing the effect from dry-eraser-board cleaner at a clinic where I worked. Simple Green at home has the same effect: within minutes, I start to feel like my eyes are being pumped full of helium and becoming too large for their bony orbits. I head for the fresh air and can’t come back in for some while.

Turns out, the offending ingredient is probably 2BE ( 2-butoxyethanol)–a substance found (though manufacturers are not required to tell you) in Windex and Simple Green and many other products, about which the precautions warnings include (but by no means are limited to) the following:

People exposed to high levels of 2-butoxyethanol for several hours have reported nose and eye irritation, headaches, vomiting and a metallic taste in their mouths. In addition to inhaling 2-butoxyethanol vapor, research has shown that skin can also absorb 2-butoxyethanol vapor from the air, making skin a major pathway of exposure to this chemical. It has been linked to some autoimmune diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and autism and some forms of anemia. Also, 2BE has been documented to cause the breakdown of red blood cells, leading to blood in  urine and feces, and can damage the kidneys, liver, spleen and bone marrow of humans — effects not included on the information sheet for workers.

2BE’s Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet recommends that, if spilled, DO NOT wash into sewer.

That’s funny, because, in the event of an undersea oil spill, we’re willing to pump tens of thousands of gallons of this dispersant into the oceans adjacent to where people live and the front bedrooms of countless billions of invertebrates including baby fish, zooplankton, oysters and other filter-feeders who will feel their eyeballs begin to swell and have no outdoors to run to.

But not to worry: there are other dispersant chemicals, like Corexit 9500. Yummy. Exact ingredients are a trade secret, but 2BE is among them.

Corexit is  being used in large volumes by BP in this disaster. BP has purchased a goodly percentage of the world supply and could use it all before this disaster is “over”. Corexit is a petroleum based dispersant, about which according to ProtectTheOcean.com states…

“Oil is toxic at 11 ppm while Corexit 9500 is toxic at only 2.61 ppm; Corexit 9500 is four times as toxic as the oil itself.”

It is being used a mile below the surface to emulsify the oil into microscopic globules, invisible to camera crews and condo share-holders. But tell that to the food chain creatures, birds, turtles and fish already dying without any visible signs of oil on them.

There are more effective and less harmful dispersants available. Why are they not being used? FOLLOW THE MONEY. Corexit company stock up 18%. Makes my eyeballs bulge.

Sources: 1 2 3

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. When corpoate greed controls all the power; the path of money, our legislators, and even the citizens through brainwashing advertisements, there is little chance that anyone but them will come out on top.

    This is a disaster of epic proportions. In its second week it is already receiving no where near as much news coverage as it should. I wonder about our news outlets and who controls them.

    Our government acts as if it were anemic. If this were a terrorist activity would not the response have been different? Thousands, perhaps millions of life forms will be impacted by this travesty, and out first concern is making the oil disappear by emulsifying it and getting it to drop to the bottom of the ocean just like it will disappear from our news channels while the real damage will be with us for decades.



  2. I had the same notion: 11 Americans killed by plastic explosive, tens of thousands along the Gulf Coast devastated financially, hundreds of thousands’ travel and tourism plans abolished, and billions of dollars cost to the American economy.The outrage! And if it were the result of a terrorist act, we’d even be bemoaning the insignificant wee creatures at the bottom of the food-chain (sorry for the science-garbage there Ms Palin) that the Fox News could otherwise give a rat’s acetabulum about.

  3. Also consider the following:

    The strategy is controversial among marine biologists. In 2005, the National Academies Press published a book on the topic, available for online reading, authored by the Ocean Studies Board. The report reveals that serious questions remain about the wisdom of using dispersants to treat spills.

    The report states that most research on how fish deal with chemically dispersed oil don’t account for how sunlight might magnify ill effects. The report puts it like this:

    [T]he possibility of photoenhanced toxicity and particulate/oil droplet phase exposure is generally not considered. A number of laboratory studies have indicated toxicity due to PAH [breakdown products of dispersant solvents] increases significantly (from 12 to 50,000 times) for sensitive species in exposures conducted under ultraviolet light (representative of natural sunlight), compared to those conducted under the more traditional laboratory conditions of fluorescent lights.

    In other words, most tests have been done under lab conditions; but when you perform them in actual sea conditions — ie, with the sun shining — things look considerably worse. That’s a chilling thought, given what is now happening in the Gulf.


  4. The supposedly secret composition of the dispersant COREXIT 9500 is a joke on lazy journalists and bloggers. Its chemical composition was disclosed years ago in toxicity studies and patent and regulatory filings, all in the public domain and all readily available on the internet.

    First note COREXIT 9500 does not contain 2-butoxyl ethanol, unlike its predecessor Corexit 9527 (which caused adverse health effects in Exxon Valdez responders). The solvent was replaced by propylene glycol and a mixture of food-grade (!) aliphatic hydrocarbons called Norpar 13 (n-alkanes ranging from nonane to hexadecane) in Corexit 9500 (according to ExonMobil rsearchers Varadaraj et al., 1995).

    Second, the supposedlyl proprietary sulfonic acid salt was disclosed in the 2001 patent filing US 6168702. The basic chemicaly formula is that of a sulfonic and carboxylic double quaternary amine salt but a range of substituents makes the overall composition quite variable. The patent filing shows a picture of the chemical which conveys its chemical makeup

    Third, Corexit 9500 contains two non-ionic surfactants, Tween 80 (eicosethoxy sorbitan monooleate) and the somewhat similar Span 80 a(ethoxylated sorbitan mono- and trioleates).

    Relatively little toxity testing has been done with either version of Corexit. Oil is only dispersed into a greater volume of water and does not go away.

  5. I’d like to see the chemical formulation of Corexit 9500 that has been public for years per your claim. Please post the link and I will share with others who can assess this information. I think the bottom line impact lies in your last sentence: even if non-toxic, the dispersant’s impact is short-term at the cost of long-term degradation and passage through the food chain of resulting microspherules of oil.

  6. I see that the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for “type 1” Corexit 9500 and “type 2” dispersants were posted only yesterday (May 4) to http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/go/site/2931/ –scroll down sidebar to May 4.

    I stand corrected and relieved; apparently 9500 does not contain 2BE, but neither dispersant apparently has had adequate testing for the present use, and living tissue effects of both are more of a “chronic” nature at low doses.

  7. With all the nasty side effects of the dispersants currently being used, why isn’t the absorbent, A Plus Absorbent, being used? This is an organic, biodegradable product made from peat in northern Minnesota. It also works as a dispersant, but it is an absorbent. It actually disperses oil better than the dispersants being used. It has been tested by the EPA with excellent results. The oil companies are well aware of it as well as our Federal government. I think it’s time that something that actually works without all of the nasty side effects starts to be used on these oil spills that keep happening worldwide!