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


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more