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?

Two years ago marine toxicologist Susan Shaw dove into the Gulf of Mexico and discovered a nightmare. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill had unleashed torrents of toxic oil, made worse with chemical dispersants, causing a reign of death and illness. Armed with this experience, she collaborated with 13 other scientists as part of the Strategic Sciences Working Group, convened by the Department of the Interior, to assess the consequences of the oil spill and make policy recommendations to the federal government. As founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine, she is now launching a new campaign to promote ocean health.

Last year, Audubon's Women in Conservation committee honored Shaw, among other women, for her dedication to mitigating the Gulf spill's impacts. A Woodrow Wilson visiting fellow and recipient of numerous other awards, in March Shaw received the Explorers Club Citation of Merit Award for “extraordinary feats of exploration and research." Here, she reflects on that fateful dive and how the Gulf, and our oceans in general, are faring.


You were the first toxicologist to dive into the Gulf of Mexico about a month after the spill, on May 24th 2010. What was that like? 

There were thick blankets of oil on the surface that were being sprayed heavily, day and night, with Corexit dispersant. I was on a boat with a colleague, and we got about 40 miles out where there was deep, thick oil on the surface. Right at the edge I got into the water and dove down, covered from head to toe in pretty heavy scuba gear. As I went down into the water column, I noticed that the oil was getting broken up into smaller and smaller pieces by the dispersant—it penetrates the lipid membrane in the oil, breaking the oil up into tiny pieces, and as it does that, it releases hydrocarbons—solvents—which are overpowering when they come up on the surface. It’s an unbelievable experience to breathe that—it gives you a terrible, blinding headache. A few feet down I started to see around me dead fish, and the further I went, the more there were—dead jellies, dead shrimp, little tiny organisms floating around in this dispersed oil mix. I surfaced after that—it really scared me. It was clear that this was a very dangerous mixture, and I had a fiery sore throat afterward.

Why is the dispersed oil so toxic?

The Corexit dispersant itself is not more toxic than oil—oil is far more toxic once it gets into the body—but the dispersant helps oil get into the body more readily. Fishermen who were in contact with this dispersant-oil mixture had ulcerated skin—the dispersant eats through the skin, and it causes big lesions and boils and ulcers. Once oil gets into the organs, it’s like a ticking time bomb because the oil has hundreds of compounds, including what are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are carcinogenic and toxic to every organ systems in the body. Notably, these chemicals are highly toxic to the brain, so oil exposure can cause severe nervous system effects.

Has the spill taught us anything about how to approach offshore drilling?

I would like to say that, two years later, we’ve learned from this spill and that measures are in place, but they’re not. The President’s Commission on the Gulf Oil Spill delivered many recommendations for equipment that we must have on site if we’re doing deep-water drilling like this, and none of those recommendations were actually followed. Congress has not passed one piece of legislation to ensure the safety of deep water drilling. In a report card released this week on industry and government response to the spill, Congress earned a "D" for its lack of action, whereas the report also indicated that the Obama administration and the oil industry made more progress with important safety advances. But now we’re giving leases to Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic with a very shabby plan for response should there be a spill in the ice.

Fast-forward two years: How is the Gulf faring?

We have a real mess down there. The BP ad campaign, with the testimonials about how great everything is, is surreal. We’ve lost thousands of marine species, we have a graveyard of deep-water corals, oil is on the sea floor and in the food web, and there are patches of oil across the Gulf that will be recycling for decades. At last count, more than 600 dolphins have died, though in reality, it's probably in the thousands. Of those, half were stillborn or newborn. Hundreds of endangered sea turtles are dead. We’ve lost thousands of seabirds.The recent reports of deformed fish and shrimp with no eyes are alarming scientists and show that oil-related generational effects are happening for many marine species.

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?  

There are some signs of hope out there. Under our federal laws, corporations are not required to operate with health or the environment in mind, so we need toxic chemicals regulation reform badly at the federal level. But some of this is happening at the state level. Maine, for example, saw the banning of the flame retardant Deca, a neurotoxin, and some other states also banned it. Some corporations like Google have started incorporating sustainability into a high percentage of their operations. Architects are creating green buildings and green communities. In the ocean community, we’re working very hard to create marine protected areas—no take zones where boats can't go in and overfish and rip up the sea floor. Some of the cruise lines are certainly greening their image and greening their operation. We’re protecting less than one percent of our oceans, so we still need to do much, much more. Saving our oceans is a survival issue for all of us.

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