Is the Gulf Getting Better? A Marine Toxicologist Weighs In

Is the Gulf Getting Better? A Marine Toxicologist Weighs In

The disastrous Gulf oil spill should have taught a broader lesson about the fragility of our oceans. How well have we learned it?

By Julie Leibach
Published: 04/20/2012

But the biggest impact is going to be among people in the Gulf who have been exposed to the dispersant-oil mixture. Some response workers went out and bought their own respirators because they were not given any. It was widely reported that BP told them they would be fired if they wore respirators because they looked bad. I wasn't surprised to learn about this because I interviewed some of the workers a year after the spill. The bottom line is, there are tens of thousands of people who have been exposed to this dispersant-oil mixture as it blows onshore, and it has been in the air at high levels for months, so even children in the schools on the coast are sick, and people who just live there are sick.

Two hundred million gallons of crude oil were released into the water, with an additional two million gallons of Corexit dispersants added. Vast plumes of dispersed oil were documented floating around in deep water of the Gulf. And that oil settled into the seabed and will cycle up again when animals are feeding, or when there's a violent storm. The sea floor is a long-term reservoir for the oil that will be there for decades. There's some kind of belief that dispersant is a magic bullet, but it certainly isn't, and it's not going to spare us from these long-term consequences--in fact, it makes it worse. It's the cheap and dirty way to respond to an oil spill.

What needs to happen to prevent this disaster from occurring again?

We need to start with a backup plan, and much better planning at every stage of the process. Stronger safety measures need to be in place. And on site, there need to be containment vessels so the oil can be collected when it's on the surface. The Gulf is very important for our overall economy--29 percent of all the U.S. offshore oil production happens in the Gulf; there are 4,000 active oil and gas platforms there. There's no stopping this drilling. And if we look at this drilling going forward, in the Arctic, and also now off of Cuba, the American public needs to know that safeguards are in place.

How would you characterize the state of our oceans in general?

The oceans are in crisis from pollution, overexploitation--drilling, trawling, overfishing--and the influx of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is causing sea levels to rise and making them more acidic--oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were 200 years ago. We have more than 500 dead zones worldwide, which are areas along the coast where there's no oxygen in the water because we've dumped so much sewage, fertilizer, and pesticides there. Fish kills are regularly occurring in those dead coastal zones, and we're starting to question whether fish is safe to eat. For some species, such as corals, we see really devastating impacts. We've lost over 25 percent of our corals worldwide in 35 years, with 70 percent lost in the Caribbean, and 50 percent in the Pacific; this is because of the combined impact of warming and acidification.

The Marine Environmental Research Institute has a project called 'Seals Are Sentinels,' which studies marine mammals along the northwest Atlantic, and we analyze tissue for hundreds of toxic chemical compounds, like PCBs, DDT, pesticides, and the flame retardant compounds. Marine mammals--seals, dolphins, whales-- are the most polluted animals on the earth today. Their bodies contain levels of toxic chemicals a thousand times higher than we find in other animals or in people. The animals themselves are getting sicker and weaker. When we find dolphins stranded on the beaches in large numbers--we're talking hundreds or thousands of animals dying at once--if you look at what's in their tissues, they have such high levels of just PCBs alone that they're considered by EPA standards to be hazardous waste. This is unacceptable--we are poisoning the ocean food chain. This is why we're planning a campaign to stop toxic ocean pollution and promote healhy oceans.

What can the public do to help our oceans?

There are three things that people can do. First of all, it's about you and your world, so learn. Learn what chemicals are in your food, learn what chemicals you're using on your lawn and in your home, learn what chemicals are in your furniture. Find out as much as possible what you're being exposed to in your world and what chemicals you may be using every day that are toxic and dangerous to health. There are many ways to do that--our website is one source. Second, share knowledge and educate others. Third is, get engaged. I think people have to get angry about it to get engaged with groups like ours and campaigns like ours to stop toxic ocean pollution. Consumers can fight back with their pocketbook once they know. People assume that the government is taking care of all this, but it's not.

Can we be hopeful about anything?  

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Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is managing editor of and a former Audubon senior editor. Follow her on Twitter: @JulieLeibach

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine




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