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Dispersants debate in Gulf spill highlights need for TSCA reform

Posted by Safer States on Jun 18, 2010

Workers cleaning up the oil spill are exposed to toxic chemicals.

Fifty-seven days into the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the United States is grappling with unfathomable numbers. 60,000 barrels of oil are spilling a day—the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-sized oil spill every four days. 1.1 million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants have been sprayed in an effort to disperse the oil to break it up and allow it to mix with water and disperse rather than rising to the surface.

The workers for the oil clean-up have a hazardous, nasty job. They are in low boats close to the water. They are in contact with the oil on the water, and the sprayed toxic chemical dispersants that are coming from overhead.

The oil is hazardous to humans—the Los Angeles Times states, "Crude oil contains a brew of substances dangerous to human health, including chemicals such as benzene that are known to cause cancer in humans, and others that are toxic to the brain and central nervous system, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons."

The health effects of the dispersants are officially unknown. However, there is a lot that we do know and we are gravely concerned.

Last week, after weeks of back and forth with BP, the EPA released some of the ingredient information about the dispersants. While the ingredient list was released, the mixture percentages—a critical point to determining health risk—were not.

Current TSCA Law Doesn't Protect Us

BP has continued to call the information proprietary and confidential, and under current federal TSCA law, this behavior is allowed.

In a blog post for the Environmental Defense Fund last week, Senior Scientist Richard Denison called the battle over dispersants in the Gulf spill a "teachable moment," and it is heart-wrenchingly so.

TSCA is the Toxic Substances Control Act —the federal law that oversees chemical regulation. It was passed in 1976 and has not been changed since. It is hopelessly out of date, and we are working hard to reform it. Currently, there are bill proposals in the US Senate and the US House which, if passed, will begin to overhaul the law that determines what toxic chemicals we are exposed to.

In a teleconference last week, members of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition called on Congress to add specific provisions to the TSCA overhaul which will deal directly with chemical dispersants.

Alaska's Oil Spill Workers Suffered Long-term Effects

The same TSCA law that was in effect in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred is in effect today. When the EPA released the make-up of the dispersants used in the Gulf spill, it was revealed that Corexit 9527 has been used. This formula contains 2-butoxyethanol, which is the ingredient known to have caused health problems with the workers of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Pam Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, has been working with researchers in Alaska to figure out the long-term effects on oil spill workers after the Valdez disaster. "The workers who got the sickest were the ones who had to work with the dispersants," she says.

Consider this statement from marine toxicologist Riki Ott in The Huffington Post:

During the 1989 cleanup in Alaska, thousands of workers had what Exxon medical doctors called, "the Valdez Crud," and dismissed as simple colds and flu. Fourteen years later, I followed the trail of sick workers through the maze of court records, congressional records, obituaries, and media stories, and made hundreds of phone calls. I found a different story. As one former cleanup worker put it, "I thought I had the Valdez Crud in 1989. I didn't think I'd have it for fourteen years."

What You Can Do

The law that allows BP to spray first, to expose our workers first, and to contaminate our environment first then answer questions later is TSCA. What further proof do we need that strong TSCA form is needed now? The states are continuing to work hard by passing new laws to protect their citizens, but stronger support is needed by the federal government. We need a strong federal chemicals law that will guide corporations and keep our health at the center of the discussion.

The bills in the Senate (The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010) and the House (The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act) are a huge step forward, but this oil disaster is proving that they need to be as strong as possible. You can help us today by calling your Senators and Congressmembers to let them know that you want the strongest law possible passed.

Photo courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr.

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