BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest spill in US history, and potentially the largest spill in world history. Crude oil contains hundreds of compounds including petroleum that are acutely and chronically toxic to marine organisms and people. Compounding the threat of the oil, between one and two million gallons of toxic Corexit chemical dispersants have been sprayed and injected into the Gulf. The use of dispersants is seen as a “trade-off” to keep the oil slick from reaching the marshes and beaches. But their massive application has created large subsurface plumes of dispersed oil that threaten the ocean food web itself.
The Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) proposes a collaborative, region-wide investigation of toxic impacts of oil and dispersants on the Gulf ecosystem – from phytoplankton, fish, and birds to marine mammals and humans. This broad-based, multi-species, multi-habitat approach can provide essential information in a timely way that will inform public health measures (seafood safety), as well as current and future restoration efforts.
Tracking Threats to the Food Web
Both types of Corexit dispersants used in the Gulf contain solvents – petroleum distillates that are animal carcinogens – capable of killing or depressing the growth of a wide range of aquatic species. For vulnerable species such as phytoplankton, corals and small fish, the combined effects of Corexit and dispersed oil can be greater and last longer than the effects of oil alone. As plumes of dispersed oil form in the water column, toxic globules of oil and dispersant envelope and kill floating plankton, fish eggs and larvae – and everything else at sensitive life stages. Planktivorous fish like herring indiscriminately ingest these globules and break the oil down to more toxic by-products that can be deadly at low concentrations. Depletion of critical niches in the food web sets the stage for “trophic cascades” which can cause the collapse of higher organisms.
At the top of the food chain, large fish (amberjacks, tuna, grouper) and marine mammals are exposed to oil and dispersant through consumption of contaminated fish. For air-breathing animals like dolphins, sperm whales, and manatees, exposure to volatile petroleum fumes occurs every time they surface for air and can result in liver and kidney damage and respiratory problems including chemical pneumonia. Skin contact with oil and dispersant can cause ulcers and burns to membranes of the eyes and mouth. Corexit 9527 contains an especially toxic component, 2-butoxyethanol, that ruptures red blood cells, causing animals to undergo hemolysis (internal bleeding).
While some of the effects of this disaster are all too visible – oiled pelicans, dead sea turtles — it is likely that the worst of the impacts on the Gulf are yet to come and will not be apparent without deliberate tracking and scientific assessment.
Call for Independent Research
Currently, there is no independent, region-wide effort to assess the short- and long-term impacts of oil and dispersants throughout the Gulf food web. BP and federal officials first denied that the dispersants were creating subsea plumes of oil. The voice of independent scientists brought this information to light. State agencies in the gulf are overwhelmed, underfunded, and fragmented – most are charged with protecting a single species or group of species with certain habitat types. These efforts will not tell the full story or consequences of the damages to the food web.
As a lead institute specializing in independent, region-wide ecotoxicological assessment, the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) is uniquely qualified to fill this gap. Now in our 20th year, MERI’s Center for Marine Studies has extensive experience conducting large-scale investigations of exposure and effects of hundreds of environmental chemicals in marine species, including mammals and commercially important fish stocks along the US Atlantic coast.
Already, MERI’s toxicological research expertise has been instrumental in the Gulf. In May, MERI Director Dr. Susan Shaw conducted a preliminary investigation of potential impacts of oil and dispersant in the water column. Since then, she has been advising the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in their efforts to assess oil exposure in shellfish (oysters, crabs, shrimps) and near-shore fish (black drum, red drum, sea trout, sheepshead) destined for human consumption.
As the core of a dynamic team of public, private, and university partners, MERI will plan and carry out independent, integrated scientific research to investigate the impacts of oil and dispersant on the Gulf environment and biota. MERI will utilize available data from existing federal and state monitoring programs and avoid duplication of effort wherever possible.
MERI is currently exploring key partnerships with research institutes, agencies, and universities within the Gulf region and beyond to carry out this project. Identified partners include the following:
– MERI has a longstanding partnership with The Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health and School of Public Health, State University of New York at Albany, NY, Under the direction of Dr. Kurunthachalam Kannan, Wadsworth’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences specializes in human biomonitoring and is a world leader in ecological monitoring of toxicants, including persistent pollutants and trace metals in air, water, soil, sediment, biota and human specimens.
– The Gulf Restoration Network, New Orleans, LA serves as a central information and networking hub across the Gulf. The Network will distribute sampling kits and training videos to participating groups and individuals.
– Google Ocean and Mission Blue Foundation will provide expertise in consolidating information and conducting public education through an integrated geographic information systems (GIS) approach.
RVLL Ocean Endeavors, Austin, TX, will provide communications consulting and coordination.
– The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), a center within the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York, will assist with on-line data and information management, spatial data integration and training, and interdisciplinary research related to human interactions in the environment (proposed partner).
Assessing Toxic Impacts
This project will assess the following:
– The distribution and fate of crude oil-related contaminants, including but not limited to, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and alkylated PAHs and their hydroxylated metabolites (OH-PAHs) throughout the Gulf food web – in water, sediments, plankton, estuarine and offshore fish, sea turtles, marine birds and marine mammals
– The distribution and fate of contaminants released from dispersants (surfactants, solvents)
Spatial and temporal patterns of contaminant transport, behavior, and food chain accumulation
The toxicity of crude oil, dispersed oil, and dispersants in targeted species, including potential human toxicity from seafood consumption
– A project of this scale will require significant new funding, yet the situation is volatile and sample collection cannot wait. Therefore, as MERI continues assembling the team and seek funds, a MERI-led team will immediately commence training and collection of environmental and biotic samples throughout the Gulf.
– MERI is enlisting the cooperation of state and federal agencies, stranding networks, and trained volunteers to obtain samples (see our preliminary Gulfwide Sampling Program). Sampling kits with detailed sampling instructions will be distributed region-wide through the Gulf Restoration Network and key agencies and universities. Volunteer training will be offered at selected locations beginning in July, and training videos will be made available. Preliminary analysis will follow the ecotoxicological research protocols established by MERI and Wadsworth over the past decade.
– Currently, there is no independent, region-wide effort to assess the short- and long-term impacts of oil and dispersants throughout the Gulf food web.
– MERI is uniquely qualified to lead an independent, region-wide assessment of toxic impacts in the Gulf because of its pioneering work conducting large-scale ecotoxicological investigations.
– The focus of this research is to document impacts of oil and dispersant on the Gulf ecosystem in key species at every trophic level.
– Sample collection will commence immediately and will include water, sediments, and plankton, and tissues of nearshore and offshore fish, sea turtles, marine birds and marine mammals.
– Chemicals to be measured include oil-related contaminants (PAHs, alkylated PAHs, OH-PAHs), and components of Corexit dispersants (surfactants, solvents).
– Contaminant-related health impacts assessment will include mortality and morbidity, and testing for bioindicators such as enzyme induction in various species.
Susan D. Shaw, DrPH
Director, Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI)
Center for Marine Studies, PO Box 1653, 55 Main Street
Blue Hill, ME 04614 USA
Tel: (207) 374-2135 Cell (212) 203-9539 Fax: (207) 374-2931