EPA Approves Corexit for Gulf Oil Spill Cleanup, But Nobody Knows What It's Made Of

Gulf oil spill

The mammoth oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico is horrifying, to be sure, but the chemical oil dispersants that BP started using just a week after the spill may be hurting more than helping. BP briefly stopped using the chemicals so that the EPA could perform testing. Now the EPA has approved Corexit 9500 and Corexit(R) EC9527A for use in the spill, according to ProPublica. The big problem: Nobody really knows what's inside Corexit.

Trade secrets keep the exact ingredients from being revealed, and safety sheets show that Corexit contains compounds that can cause vomiting, reproductive problems, and headaches at high doses. No toxicity studies have been performed on the compounds, but an environmental group called Protect the Ocean claims that Corexit is four times as toxic as the oil. And an earlier form of Corexit used in the Exxon Valdez cleanup reportedly caused workers to develop nervous system, blood, and respiratory disorders.

ProPublica explains:

They’re also called dispersants for a reason. The chemicals break up the oil and then disperse it, so instead of having the oil collect at the surface, dispersed droplets of oil can spread more quickly and in more directions. This means the droplets linger longer in the water, collecting on the seabed and harming the ecosystem offshore. Using dispersants involves a trade-off, according to a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report. It’s a choice between diluting oil droplets more broadly and invisibly in the ocean and seeing thick gobs of it coating seabirds and beaches.

Dispersants still need to be used, but there are better chemical dispersants out there than Corexit. Wired reports that a dispersant called Dispersit was approved 10 years ago by the EPA for emergency cleanup. Dispersit is twice as effective at breaking down crude oil and half as toxic as Corexit. But Corexit has been the dispersant of choice in past oil spills, and it's what oil companies have in their stockpiles. If field tests with Dispersit go well, we can only hope that BP relents and gives it a chance. Otherwise, we risk bringing all those toxic side effects from Corexit into the human food chain.

UPDATE: In a statement to the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, toxicology expert Dr. William Sawyer elaborated on the risks associated with Corexit. According to Sawyer, Corexit is also known as deodorized kerosene—a substance with health risks to humans as well as sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles, birds, and any species that need to surface for air exchanges.

Add New Comment


  • Bill Reeder

    Oil Spill eater II
    23 Years of Denial
    Much of what was being reported about in 2011 as the aftermath of the Gulf Oil Spill has not covered an important point: Oil is still leaking from the seabed floor BP well zone and millions of barrels are still submerged and residing in the water column--HOW WILL THE TOXIC GULF BE CLEANED UP 
    There are many ongoing blog and media reports about the aftermath from the spill and millions being spent on studies to find out how marine life, water and other mediums have been affected.  Further, as recent as Sept 13, 2011 reports on numerous sightings of new oil slicks in the vicinity of the original BP Spill are bringing attention back to the area. Lab tests showing it to be BP oil finally forced the admittance by the responsible oil company that it was their oil.  Sadly, none of this coverage brings to light the most crucial issue; continued use of dispersants which do not remediate the oil and hence do not relieve the continued toxic stress on the ecosystem with adverse economic and health effects to Gulf Coast residents. And this cycle of new oil surfacing and repeatedly spraying Corexit to disperse it, has proven to compound environmental damage for which BP and government agencies enforcing destructive protocols should be held financially accountable. 
    The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits there are “trade-offs” to using Corexit, however their explanation of these and why they favor its use on their website, are absurd.  (See EPA Link)
    The combined events of the BP Oil Spill and the application of this [outmoded] cleanup method (millions of gallons of Corexit(R)) resulted in high toxicity levels persisting in the GOM region until as recent as March 201l* - levels well above earlier official safety threshold standards set in 1999 which, for some unexplained reason, were raised by much higher percentiles within a few months after the beginning of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. [a means of blinding people from identifying potential public health and seafood contamination risks] .These toxicity levels are still adversely affecting human health and marine life in the region.  

    EPA and other federal agency statements announcing the clean up was successful and assuring the public that seafood was safe to consume and that the environment  was safe to use  were clearly premature and misrepresentative to the public, suggesting ineffective clean-up protocols and potential negligence on the part of the EPA.  The most recent scientific data on this issue are fact-based, and those facts are now being reported in scientific literature.   
    More notably, BP had made formal requests to use bio remediation clean up technology to avoid these toxic trade-offs and initiated testing on a product called Oil Spill Eater II (already approved and listed on EPA’s National Contingency Plan for Oil Spill Response) to replace Corexit.  BP’s request, along with those from gulf state officials, including Governor Jindal of Louisiana, were denied by EPA and Regional Response Team officials. The EPA denial letter cited science that erroneously grouped this ready-to-deploy, proven clean up product with “questionable” remediation products examined.  In a June 2010 EPA letter, BP’s official request was denied, (correspondence relevant to the issue-Attachment 5, 6).  Per Gulf Rescue Alliance sources BP’s Chief Council referenced that letter and stated in a recent meeting that their hands were tied where the use of bioremediation (OSE II ) was concerned – “BP is bound by it”—bound by the EPA mandate [to keep using Corexit]. Consequentially it is estimated that BP could have saved an estimated $36 billion in clean up costs if they had deployed the EPA approved alternative to Corexit.  
    Gulf Rescue Alliance (GRA) has voluminous documentation indicating the EPA arbitrarily blocked and continues to prevent the use of eco friendly bioremediation clean up technology in favor of Corexit despite ample science indicating it is fatally toxic to marine life and even humans.  
    Bottom line: Use of bioremediation could have saved BILLIONS in clean up costs and result in an end point to the disaster. (See Economic Comparison article) BP’s attempt to use an alternative is a significant point and the resultant damage caused by Corexit is proving to be quite concerning for escalating clean up costs.  
    We applaud Surfrider Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity for its recent action of filing suit against the EPA over the use of dispersants reinforcing the case that EPA oil spill cleanup response protocols are wholly inadequate.  
    While the EPA, NOAA and Coast Guard remain in denial and continue to roadblock the use of Bioremediation, perhaps this suit will open the door for permitting the deployment of safe and effective cleanup methods available and ready for use right now to stop the killing in the Gulf Waters.  And if one had no regard for the marine life and saving the ecosystem, possibly the continued threat of loss in BP Stock value will incite action.  
    While allowing Nalco Holding Company, the manufacturer of Corexit, to use up their existing stockpiles in the country, the UK has banned the product from further subsequent use.