Secret Ingredients in Corexit Oil Dispersant Are Carcinogenic and Absorbed Through Skin

Some of the worst fears about the dispersant BP is using in the Gulf Spill appear to be justified.

Gulf oil spill

When the EPA approved Nalco's Corexit to be used as an oil dispersant in the Deepwater Horizon disaster last month, we were more than a little concerned—trade secrets kept the exact ingredients of the product from being revealed, but safety sheets reported that Corexit could cause vomiting, reproductive problems, and headaches

Now the EPA has released the list of ingredients, and it isn't comforting: Despite Nalco's claims that Corexit is safe, biodegradable, and free of carcinogens, it happens to contain substances that—you guessed it!—are dangerous, non-biodegradable, and carcinogenic.

For example, there's 2-butoxy ethanol. Greenbiz lists the following warnings for the substance:

2-Butoxy Ethanol can affect you by ingestion and may be absorbed through the skin.
2-Butoxy Ethanol should be handled as a CARCINOGEN—WITH EXTREME CAUTION.
Contact can irritate the skin and eyes with possible eye damage.
Inhaling 2-Butoxy Ethanol can irritate the nose and throat.
2-Butoxy Ethanol can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Exposure can cause headache, dizziness, lightheadedness, and passing out.
2-Butoxy Ethanol may damage the liver and kidneys.

We've seen 2-butoxy ethanol before: It was also used during cleanup operations for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster.

In a recent interview with, Exxon Valdez worker Merle Savage described many of the symptoms listed above, including nausea, vomiting, liver damage, and dizziness. Cleanup workers at the BP disaster site are also reporting similar symptoms. The most disturbing part: more effective and less toxic products have been around for years.

But changes may be coming. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition urged Congress today to act later this summer, by overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act.

That act governs many of the ingredients in dispersants, but it really doesn't "govern" much at all: According to the coalition, the act grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals without any safety tests. Since then, only a few hundred have been scrutinized, and only five have been restricted. 

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email

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  • Christian Roselund

    When I read comments as misleading as the ones posted on this story, I always have to wonder if they are posted by fools or intentionally planted.

    1. BP is continuing to use Corexit 9527, which contains 30-60% 2-Butoxyethanol, according to the testimony before congress of renowned Chemist Wilma Subra earlier this month.

    2. BP has used hundreds of thousands of gallons of both Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 - as first reported by Grist magazine journalist Tom Philpott, and confirmed by multiple other sources.

    3. The National Institute of Health, through their Haz-map website, reports that 2-Butoxyethanol has a strong chance of causing not only cancer, but BIRTH DEFECTS, TESTICULAR DAMAGE and OTHER REPRODUCTIVE HARM.

    Assuming that those who commented on this article do not work for BP, you should do some research before shooting your mouth off, even online.

  • Chris Reich

    This article seriously is short on data necessary to form an informed opinion. I read this as the typical hype story that pushes away skeptics from having environmental concern. That's too bad because the ones who wish to hear about another evil BP has committed will find just what they needed. Those who dismiss every environmental story as another "sky is falling" piece, can easily toss on the hysteria pile.

    What happened to real reporting?

    Tell me, what is the concentration of these toxins? I've spent days on boats at sea---the diesel fuel is awful in hot, humid and still air. There are many people on scene who are not accustomed to being in these conditions. Spend time near a refinery---supposedly non-harmful levels of pollution smell like hell. Ever been to Bakersfield, CA? Breathing in Bakersfield can make you sick but I doubt it will blow your liver. But this article clearly implies that if someone experiences nausea, they are on their way to liver failure.

    Then there's the oil itself. All that surface area mixed with heat and still air isn't going to smell like roses.

    Anyway, I wish we would think deeper about these problems instead always just reacting.

    We all share a little responsibility for this spill. We don't want to reduce our use of fossil fuels. We want these companies to drill baby drill. Then we get upset when the long-shot disaster happens. A society that wants the product has to be prepared to accept the risk.

    Cost? BP isn't going to pay for the cleanup. We are. We'll reimburse them at the pump. Is EXXON broke? Has that spill ever been totally cleaned up? Have the damages been paid in full?


    Chris Reich

  • Rene Sugar

    Nalco, the maker of Corexit, has ties to BP and ExxonMobil via their board of directors:

    Rodney F. Chase

    Rodney F. Chase is a former Deputy Group Chief Executive of BP and served on the board of BP for eleven years.

    Daniel S. Sanders

    Daniel S. Sanders is the former President, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, and Vice President, ExxonMobil Corporation.

  • Bob Cumbers

    If you did even the slightest bit of research, you would have discovered that the Corexit product containing 2-butoxyethanol was used in very small quantities at the beginning of the oil spill clean-up and is not being manufactured or used now. The vast majority of Corexit product that has been used does not contain 2-butoxyethanol. Again, maybe a little research next time.