Corexit: An Oil Spill Solution Worse Than the Problem?

Once heralded as a tidy way to clean up spreading slicks, the chemical agent has proved toxic for sea life—and humans.

corexit - bp deepwater horizon oil spill effects

EcoRigs diver and whistleblower Steve Kolian holds up a bag of seawater contaminated with oil and Corexit. (Photo: Dean Schweinler)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Every three to four weeks, a cycle of horror repeats itself across Steve Kolian’s face. First it becomes itchy. Then the bumps appear. Then a raw, irritating redness sets in before the skin peels away in patches. Finally, it all disappears for a while.

Other parts of his body, however, seem to be in perpetual disrepair. Dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, bloody stools, and cognitive issues surface intermittently, painful reminders of the toxic assault he and untold others endured following the April 2010 explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

It reminded me of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ The fumes were choking folks along the coast. Then you add the Corexit, and communities felt their lives became a laboratory, only they were the living experiment.

Kolian, 51, is convinced that his illnesses were triggered by a chemical product designed to disperse petroleum in water, a substance euphemistically marketed as Corexit. Now, three years after the disaster that left some 210 million gallons of Louisiana crude and 1.8 million gallons of dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico, a growing body of evidence supports his contentions.

Kolian is founder of the nonprofit group EcoRigs, whose volunteer scientists and divers seek to preserve offshore oil and gas platforms after production stops. The superstructures can be maintained not only as artificial reefs but also as producers of solar, wind, wave, and tidal energy.

After the Deepwater Horizon blowout, EcoRigs divers were asked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to gather water samples from the Gulf, “in exchange for test results and presumable compensation,” Kolian told TakePart in an exclusive interview.

The group’s first dive was on May 7, 2010, when it took samples at the surface and subsurface and collected marine life, including corals, sponges, and sea squirts, growing on platforms. “NOAA assured us it was perfectly safe” to dive where crude oil had been treated with dispersants," Kolian said. “But we quickly learned that was false.”

His harrowing story, and those of many others, has been compiled into a raft of damning affidavits and interviews collected by the whistleblower group Government Accountability Project and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Taken together, the statements paint a grim picture of corporate deceit and governmental acquiescence, which could foretell a legacy of chronic illness and premature death among those exposed to the blood-cell rupturing properties of Corexit. Meanwhile, the impact of the dispersant on the Gulf’s environment and marine life is gradually coming to light, as toxins in the product, and the oil it emulsified, make their way up the food chain.

They say that the cover-up is often worse than the crime; but in this case, the solution may be worse than the problem.

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Corexit is a product line of dispersants that emulsify crude oil into minuscule droplets that are heavier than water and tend to sink into the ocean. The idea is to prevent oil slicks from reaching shorelines, estuaries, and other coastal waterways, with their fragile and sometimes threatened ecosystems. 

Once oil is treated, typically by aerial spraying, the slick breaks down and quickly spreads across the surface and down the water column, as tiny beads of goo begin to sink. Wave action and wind turbulence degrade the oil further, though evaporation concentrates the toxins left behind, especially dangerous compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

Soon after the Deepwater blowout, BP snatched up one-third of the world supply of dispersants, namely Corexit EC9500 and Corexit EC9527, according to The New York Times. Of the two, Corexit EC9527 is more toxic. Its main component, 2-butoxyethanol, has been identified as one of the agents that caused liver, kidney, lung, nervous system, and blood disorders among cleanup crews in Alaska following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. According to media reports, nearly all of the individuals in those crews have died, with the average age of death around 50. Herring fisheries in the area were decimated, and other marine species are still in stages of recovery.

Corexit EC9527 is toxic to blood and organs. “WARNING: Eye and skin irritant,” reads a safety data sheet on the Nalco website. “Repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver. Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin, and if swallowed. Do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing. Do not take internally. Use with adequate ventilation. Wear suitable protective clothing.” In case of accidental release, handlers should “restrict access to area as appropriate until clean-up operations are complete.”

Human health hazards are “acute,” according to the safety data sheet, and potential toxicological impact is “high.” But that is only for people who come into unprotected contact with it. That’s why Nalco claims that, “based on our recommended product application and personal protective equipment, the potential human exposure is: Low.”

Cleanup crews not only lacked “personal protective equipment” to guard against Corexit, but when they asked for respirators, BP officials threatened termination and told them it would be bad publicity to suggest the spill was toxic, news reports said.

As for potential environmental hazards, the risk is “moderate,” Nalco says in its data sheet, then adds: “Based on our recommended product application and the product's characteristics, the potential environmental exposure is: Low." As such, Corexit is classified as “non-hazardous waste” by the federal government and not subject to federal regulations.

There are fewer warnings for Corexit EC9500, though no official toxicity studies have been done. “Based on our hazard characterization, the potential human hazard is: Moderate,” according to Nalco's safety sheet. Again the risks are downplayed—if the product is used properly. “The human risk is: Low. The environmental risk is: Low. Any use inconsistent with our recommendations may affect the risk characterization."

Nalco itself has a storied history. Once partly owned by the Blackstone Group, current owner of SeaWorld, the company was recently sold to EcoLab, which works on hygiene, clean water, food, and energy services.

“Every day, we make the world cleaner, safer and healthier—protecting people and vital resources,” trumpets Ecolab’s website. Equally ironic is that the company’s largest shareholder is also dedicated to health and hygiene: Bill Gates, whose Cascade Investment LLC owned more than 22 million shares in 2011, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust held another 4.4 million. A spokesman for the Gates Foundation said it had nothing to do with the trust, even though it invests money to create funding for foundation grants.

To many environmentalists, it is mystifying why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ever approved Corexit for the Gulf in the first place. EPA data shows that Corexit is far more toxic, and far less effective at dispersing Louisiana crude, than many other products: 9527 and 9500 are only 56 percent and 63 percent effective, respectively, and some alternatives are 10 to 20 times less toxic. The EPA’s head at the time, Lisa Jackson, said approving Corexit use was “the hardest decision I ever made.”

BP has consistently defended the decision. One company spokesman told The New York Times it was “pretty effective” and “rigorously tested.” Nalco’s chief technology officer, Mani Ramesh, told Reuters that the product is harmless to the environment because its active ingredient is “an emulsifier also found in ice cream.” BP did not return emails seeking comment.

In May 2010, the EPA told BP to identify less toxic alternatives from a list of government-approved dispersants. If BP could not identify an alternative, it had to offer concrete reasons why not. The company replied that less-toxic dispersants were not available in the quantities needed. BP continued spraying Corexit in the Gulf, at an average ratio of one gallon per 91 gallons of oil, into the summer of 2010.

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Steve Kolian and the other Gulf divers had been assured by NOAA that it was safe to enter Corexit-treated waters. But they soon learned otherwise, and they learned the hard way.

“During those dives, we wore standard equipment: air tanks, fins, snorkel, gloves, a 2mm wetsuit and a hood,” he stated in his sworn affidavit for GAP. But wet suits provided little protection from the contaminated water, and the skin on Kolian’s now-peeling face was completely exposed.

Kolian said he was contacted by a NOAA contractor, who asked divers “to collect samples and submit a research proposal” for studying water quality, and another proposal for evaluating marine life on offshore platforms.

After his first two dives, “I asked [NOAA] staff specifically if the Corexit was toxic, and they said ‘Corexit only has a 90-minute half-life,’ ” Kolian said in the affidavit. “This was reassuring to hear,” he said. “As long as we were not seeing any planes flying around we thought we would be ok.”

Government officials “endorsed a policy to deny the toxicity of Corexit,” he continued, and they “purposely misled people: NOAA, EPA and FDA knew that Corexit and oil was a very toxic combination.”

The EcoRigs team made 36 dives for NOAA. “We were seeing things that other people were not documenting,” Kolian told TakePart. They collected samples from mid-July to mid-September 2010 but could not obtain lab results from NOAA. Eventually, the divers began withholding samples. Kolian sent repeated requests for the data but only received a verbal response that some samples were positive for oil, though not from BP’s MC 252 well, he said.

“We started to figure that [NOAA] was going to screw us in some way,” Kolian said in his affidavit. EcoRigs managed to have some of its samples independently tested and found PAH concentrations that were up to 1,000 times higher than EPA safety standards. The samples’ fingerprints correlated with MC 252 oil.

Large amounts of oil sit on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico that leaked out of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead operated by BP on May 6, 2010 in Venice, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Over the summer of 2010, NOAA cut off communication with the divers, and the agency “has not paid us to this day,” Kolian continued. “Our invoice is for $113,000. That includes hazard pay, such as diving in the oil.”

A NOAA spokesman told TakePart he could not comment on the allegations because the spill is under litigation, as the government takes on BP for compensation. 

One of the first divers to show health problems was Kolian’s friend and colleague Scott Porter, who developed symptoms in July 2010. Kolian’s own symptoms began in September. No one realized they were being caused by Corexit and oil, he said, but the collective symptoms were undeniable: nausea, headaches, fatigue, memory loss, and blood in the eyes, nose, and stool. By October, Kolian began to connect the dots.

That fall, he started documenting the health problems and submitted his findings to the LEAN website. “When Corexit comes in direct contact with a human body, it breaks down the protective lipid layer under the skin, which then allows toxins direct access into the bloodstream,” he wrote. The article was read by Shanna Devine, investigator at GAP, which is now working with LEAN to secure medical care costs for those affected, many of whom lack insurance. The agencies also want a promise from BP not to use Corexit again.

LEAN bankrolled blood testing for oil and dispersant compounds. Kolian’s levels were extremely high: The chemicals were absorbed by the skin and “got into our liver, kidneys and fat cells,” he said in the affidavit. “I just found my liver is partially damaged.” A detox regime in 2011 helped clear up many of the worst symptoms, though Kolian now worries about long-term effects, including cancer.

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Corexit and crude oil combined “can be more toxic than either alone,” according to Susan D. Shaw of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. “The properties that facilitate the movement of dispersants through oil also make it easier for them to move through cell walls, skin barriers, and membranes that protect vital organs, underlying layers of skin,” and other surfaces, she said in a statement.

One recent study of microscopic marine life found that oil mixed with Corexit was 52 times more toxic than oil alone.

Nalco insists the potential for human exposure to Corexit  is “low,” but try telling that to Marylee Orr, LEAN’s executive director. LEAN helped prepare a survey of the health effects on people living along the coastline and found devastating results—among not just divers and cleanup crews but ordinary residents as well. 

“I began getting calls right after the spill,” Orr said. “When the wind blew off the slick and when they were burning oil, folks called about the nightmare. It reminded me of Dante's 'Inferno.' The fumes were choking folks along the coast. Then you add the Corexit, and communities felt their lives became a laboratory, only they were the living experiment.”

Orr spoke with people who had bled from their nose, ears, breasts, even anally. “One patient had a toilet filled with blood,” she said. Others complained of cognitive damage, including what one man called getting “stuck stupid,” when he temporarily cannot move or speak but can still hear.

The most common ailments were headaches (87 percent of respondents), dizziness and cough (72 percent), fatigue and eye-nose-and-throat irritation (63 percent), followed by nausea, diarrhea, confusion, and depression.

Environmental health consultant Wilma Subra, who evaluated the survey data, said oil and dispersant had aerosolized and traveled up to 100 miles inland, potentially exposing tens of thousands of people to the hair spray–like mist. “Now we are seeing the reproductive effects,” Subra said, including high rates of miscarriages, preemies, infant respiratory problems, and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.

“The workers that BP hired should have been trained and protected adequately,” Subra said. “It was inappropriate to expose them to toxic chemicals as they did their job.” She told federal officials the workers needed respirators but was rebuffed. “They said I would be killing the workers because of the heat,” she said. “There are suits with piped-in cooling. Cleanups happen all the time in hot weather.”

As for aquatic life, “if we are getting sick, then you know the marine life out in the Gulf is too,” Kolian said. Dispersed oil collects on the seabed, where it feeds microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain and works its way up to shellfish and eventually finfish and marine mammals.

A 2005 National Academy of Sciences report found that oil and dispersants can kill fish eggs, while another recent study showed that “exposure to medium and high concentrations of [oil and Corexit] significantly decreased settlement and survival of larvae” in two coral species. Meanwhile, larger predator fish are turning up with Corexit components in their flesh. Last spring, seafood catches in the Gulf were off by nearly 25 percent of the norm, according to Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries. 

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So what now? Most people are waiting for compensation for their medical bills through BP’s settlement program. But many do not expect much.

“We’re represented by lawyers making medical claims in the BP program,” Kolian said. So far he is not filing suit against the government, even though GAP discovered, through the FOIA process, that EPA and NOAA knew it was dangerous to dive in Corexit-laced water but said nothing, Kolian said.

“People are sick: They’re in the midst of an economic crisis and a health crisis, and BP has not addressed these problems as they should,” said LEAN’s Orr. “Our Vietnamese fishermen, Native American, Cajun, and African American fishermen and -women rushed to save our beloved Gulf. Some now feel the price they’ll pay is the loss of their communities and their health. Life as they knew it no longer exists.”

Kolian, with a mixture of sadness and fury, agreed. 

“I’m resigned to the fact the government tried to make things look better than they are. But what really makes me mad is I continued working because nobody will document or even admit what is going on,” he told TakePart. “I had to spend my own money and time and risk my future to do this.”

For now, the diver worries about his long-term prospects. “I exercise and stay as healthy as possible,” he said. “I know I’m going to lose years off my life. Right now, I just want to get my papers published and fulfill what I’m supposed to do.”

David Kirby, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986 to 1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press. He is also an experienced writing coach and media trainer: For more info visit www.davidkirbycoaches.com.

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