Products Used To Clean Up Gulf Oil Spill May Have Made Things Worse, Study Finds

In the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill, cleanup crews dumped some 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico.

The substances were supposed to assist natural oil-eating bacteria in cleaning up the largest marine oil spill in history by breaking the oil into droplets the microbes could more easily consume.

But the approach backfired, suggests a study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The dispersants did a great job in that they got the oil off the surface,” University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye, a co-author of the study, told the Associated Press. “What you see is the dispersants didn’t ramp up biodegradation.”

What’s bothersome, Joye told The Atlantic, is that 24 to 55 percent of the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast is unaccounted for. She suspects much of it is on the seafloor.

For the study, Joye and her team simulated the Gulf’s conditions in a laboratory. They found that “dispersants can exert a negative effect on microbial hydrocarbon degradation rates.”

Oil with no dispersant actually “degraded a heckuva lot faster than the oil with dispersants,” she told the AP.

Dispersants work a lot like dish detergent, breaking up oil slicks into lots of small droplets. Gulf responders turned to these chemicals, namely Corexit — which studies have since shown can be harmful to various types of marine life — to address the roughly 200 million gallons of oil that spilled from the Deepwater Horizon rig.

The microbes the dispersants were meant to help were the “last (and only) defense” against the ongoing spill, Scientific American noted about a month after the spill.

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