Do chemicals that disperse oil spills make the problem worse? Probably not, new study finds

Science | AAAS | 4/5/2019 | Staff
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When the Deepwater Horizon oil well spewed at least 518 million liters of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, responders added an additional 7 million liters of chemicals, known as dispersants, to try to control the oil. That move prompted questions about whether the brew of dispersants and oil was more toxic to the environment than the oil itself.

It appears the answer is largely no, concludes a committee of top oil spill experts in a report examining dispersants issued today by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Dispersants - Slicks - Clumps - Oil - Droplets

Dispersants, which can break slicks and clumps of oil into smaller droplets that sink, have long been dogged by questions about safety and effectiveness. But today’s report concludes the chemicals can help cope with oil spills, depending on the circumstances. The panel cautioned, however, that questions remain about the health effects on people and the effectiveness of dispersants in some situations.

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“The take home is that this is a tool that has a place in the toolkit,” says David Valentine, a geochemist and microbiologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who served on the 17-person committee that produced the report. “It has the potential to make a bad thing from getting worse.”

Report - Oil - Wells - Waters - Oil

The report comes as oil wells probe deeper and deeper waters. Some so-called ultradeep oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico now stand in nearly 3 kilometers of water—twice the depth of the Deepwater Horizon well. That reduces the effectiveness of strategies to corral oil at the surface, and puts dispersants on center stage, says Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg who served on the committee.

During the Deepwater Horizon spill, dispersant was sprayed across the ocean to...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Science | AAAS
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