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Gulf Health Study Wanting

Recently, the National Institutes of Health announced its largest-ever health study of 55,000 oil cleanup workers. This coordinated study is important to assess human health but it’s not enough. This study largely ignores the residents and others such as fishermen who depend on the Gulf for food and recreation. The reports of illness in Gulf residents started as a murmur but are reaching a crescendo. I applaud NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for implementing the study, but it took 10 months it to be announced. Several of the reasons given for Gulf residents to be left out of the NIEHS study is that Gulf residents are already exposed to other health stressors and they typically lack ongoing medical care.
People on the fringe of the northern Gulf of Mexico have reported an increase in lung-related issues. Even more distressing are the increasing number of reports of people with diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding from body orifices – including nose, eyes and ears. Doctors serving the people of the Gulf may not be experienced in assessing and treating chemical poisoning. It may take forensic environmental medical professionals to adequately assess ill residents and assist in their treatment if their issues are related to the oil.

There are several challenges with assessing damage to human health. The measure that is implemented at the moment is blood taken and analyzed for petroleum hydrocarbons – specifically volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – compared to that of the general population. The ten compounds measured are known to be fleeting in the blood and are also in cigarette smoke and gasoline fumes. For example, meta- and para-xylene are VOCs that are commonly found to be elevated in VOC testing. According to the CDC, the most common sources of these compounds are paint, gasoline and paint thinner. The ongoing assault of oil on shore could be another explanation of the presence of VOC’s in residents’ blood.

Whereas the crude oil may be the culprit in the ongoing illness, Corexit is a strong contender. Corexit is a surfactant that dissolves oil and fats. When exposed to the skin, it is going to damage the lipid (fat) layer of cells and might go into the blood stream where it would presumably rupture blood cells.

How long will it be until Gulf residents are given adequate medical care? The residents of the Gulf need access to forensic environmental toxicologists and physicians with experience in treating people exposed to chemicals.

Is There Crude in my Seafood? Smell it. Yeah, Right!

I will get back to the Corexit MSDS sheet; I do visit Corexit a bit at the end of this post. This blog has been a little silent because I have been writing grants and trying to get some manuscripts off my desk. I have a pretty exciting manuscript that we have recently finished. I’ll let you know when it gets through peer review.

Today I want to write a little bit about seafood and our dear fishers and shrimpers who are suffering because of the drilling disaster that stole their livelihood. I want to discuss the smell test and explain my experiences of being in an oiled marsh.

Last Friday, I was in a marsh that was oiled when hurricane Alex came through the Gulf in June 2010. This marsh had a film of oil on top of the water. I took a sample of the oil for analysis and took some photos. I also dipped my hand into the water and the smelled the oil on my fingertips. 

Crude on my fingers. I am in a marsh on the Northern Gulf of Mexico Oct 2010.

Before I tell you what happened next, I want to tell you some things about me. My students and other people who know me say I have the nose of a bloodhound. If someone has leather shoes on their feet, I can smell the leather from roughly five feet away. I can identify ants by squishing them and smelling one of them. With the oil on my fingertips, I couldn’t smell it. Yes, you read that correctly. I absolutely positively could not smell it.

This immediately brought to mind the seafood smell test as shown in the attached video. Surely, each one of those hapless souls who conduct the test does not have the capability of detecting odor as I do. Yet, consumers are supposed to rely on their ability to smell a minute amount of oil in the tissues of a fish, shrimp or crab. How you ever smelled fresh, raw seafood? The odor can be distinct. To be able to detect fresh crude, I concede that the smell test might be valid. But I am here to tell you that I wouldn’t trust the smell test enough to eat the seafood right now.

I won’t eat seafood right now. At least, I won’t eat any species that potentially might live in the Gulf. I get a lot of grief from my colleagues and friends about this decision until I say these words, “I am not about to gamble my short- and long-term health on the livelihood of my fellow man.” That usually shuts them up.

I spoke to a shrimper friend the other day. He won’t shrimp because there are so few shrimp out there and doesn’t want to take the risk of damaging the industry with tainted seafood. He’s losing his livelihood. Geez, if you told me I couldn’t write or be a professor anymore, I don’t know what I would do.

BP needs to rescue the shrimpers and fishers from financial ruin. They need to do it more quickly and completely than their claims process currently allows. If someone wants to be retrained, BP should facilitate it and pay for it. If someone needs to be relocated, BP should foot the bill. BP promised to make it right, and they are falling far short of the mark. If BP put the money they are spending on PR into  the livelihoods and health of the people of the Gulf Coast, they’d be in better shape than they are right now.

Instead, we are being lied to. We are lied to by BP. We are lied to by NOAA. We are lied to by the FDA and the EPA. We are promised that our seafood is safe. Yet no one is testing for the presence of Corexit. We are being promised that crude oil is detectable in seafood by smell. I’m telling you from my experience in the marsh last Friday, that it is not.

Edited 31 October 2010: Mac Mackenzie has some shrimp tested. The results are here:

My take: I wouldn’t eat them.

Hungarians See Red, Gulf Coast Still Black

As the world’s attention to the drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico wanes, a different environmental disaster continues to unfold in Europe. Horrific images emerge from Hungary, the site of a one-million-cubic-meter toxic waste flood that consumed three villages on Monday October 4 and here at home oil continues to come ashore in Louisiana, and the world yawns. Sure, some news agencies develop stories, but the Hungarian calamity and the Gulf Coast catastrophe have not been continuous front page news as they should.

Toxic sludge from an aluminum plant near Ajka displaced hundreds of people. The red goo may contain arsenic, mercury, chromium, cyanide and cadmium and has infiltrated Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. And yet, the American people don’t seem to be aghast at the Hungarian disaster that strongly mirrors the one we experienced in the Gulf of Mexico.

News of the Macondo gusher in the Gulf of Mexico was reported repeatedly and extensively around the world. In addition to US news coverage, agencies in France produced hour-long newscasts dedicated to the disaster; it was also covered by Al Jazeera English and received heavy coverage in Australia.  Most news agencies in the United States have ceased or radically reduced their coverage of the Gulf disaster even though new oil was reported making landfall in Barataria Bay in mid-October. While their suffering continues or worsens, Gulf Coast residents complain of being forgotten by the rest of the country. Where has the national compassion for the affected Gulf Coast residents gone? Where is the compassion for the affected Hungarians?

The similarities of the Hungarian sludge disaster and the Gulf Coast drilling disaster are eerie. Neither environmental disaster was natural, but man-made. Each may possibly be the result of gross negligence and cost-cutting measures. The companies responsible have pledged compensation to the victims – with caveats. The Hungarian and US governments have sworn to make the responsible party pay for cleanup efforts and have pledged to save taxpayers the expense. In both cases, the ooze of the toxic substance is catastrophic for the people and ecosystem and will be for years to come.

The differences between the disasters are clear. The Hungarian disaster quickly flooded homes of ethnically/politically/socioeconomically suppressed people with red sludge, and the black oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform slowly contaminated hundreds of miles of fishing grounds and came ashore onto pristine beaches and marshes — marshes that people consider their work area, recreation area or backyard.

Clearly, the affected Hungarians do not have the resources that many Gulf Coast residents and fishermen have to escape or publicize their plight. Photographs of people leaving their polluted houses with one plastic trash bag of possessions never depict someone texting or chattering on their cell phone. Affected Hungarians are not spreading word of their predicament.

The citizens of the world should continue to pay close attention to both the disaster in Hungary and the catastrophe still unfolding in the Gulf. We Americans can learn from how the Hungarians handle their environmental crisis and they from us. Even in our time of need, Americans should be reaching out to the affected Hungarian people and those of the Gulf Coast with aid, our cutting-edge science, and most of all – our attention and compassion.

Corexit: Part I – The MSDS

I’ve been thinking about Corexit a lot lately, so there will be more than one post on this topic. In this post, I’m going to be writing about some information that can be found on the MSDS sheet for Corexit. This information sheet for Corexit EC9500A can be found here: I’m going to talk first about how to read an MSDS sheet and point out some tricky characteristics of the document. I’ll write a bit about how companies get the data contained on the sheet. I’ll discuss why MSDS sheets can have incomplete or misleading information. That will probably be enough for this post and I’ll address some of this in further detail in subsequent posts. Later, I’ll post some demonstrations with photos to explain the data found on the Corexit MSDS.

First, I’d like to talk about my experience with Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit. My lab personnel have spoken with representatives from the company. I have a colleague at another university that has spoken with them also. Our impression is that Nalco is very open to scientific inquiry to Corexit. The rep we spoke to was interested in our research and immediately sent Corexit EC9500A to my lab. My experience is that they are not trying to hide anything from me.

I’ve been studying the MSDS for Corexit EC9500A. What is an MSDS? It’s a required document called the Material Safety Data Sheet, that has information pertaining to the physical properties, toxicity, and flammability of a chemical. It provides users and emergency personnel information about the handling of a particular product. There are a lot of details on emergency procedures.

Now I’m going to go through the MSDS and explain things you might not immediately know. First is the name. Corexit EC9500A. That’s what the company wanted to name it – except there is one bit of information that is helpful for anyone interested in this compound. The information is EC. That stands for emulsifiable concentrate. This is a concentrated form of a chemical that can easily be mixed with water so that it can be applied with a sprayer. I’ll address the spray issue in another post.

EC designation usually means that a chemical has been added to help the product be more soluble or dispersed in water than it would be without it. Usually an emulsion consists of two liquids that are mixed together but the components stay separate from one another. This explains why people have reported being able to see Corexit in the water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Next on the MSDS sheet is the composition of the Corexit EC9500A. It lists three ingredients (one proprietary or secret) whose weights don’t add up to 100%. The company is not required to disclose their trade secrets, and this is why not everything in Corexit EC9500A is listed here. This is one area where the public has expressed grave concerns about the use of this compound.

Next is an important part of the label: Hazards Identification. Corexit EC9500A bears a “Caution” label or signal word. This is the lowest of four levels of signal words and so Corexit EC9500A is considered slightly toxic. This designation is reserved for chemicals that may cause slight eye or skin irritation.

The next part of the MSDS is the acute human hazards. These are the expected symptoms of someone exposed to Corexit EC9500A once. For example, there was a report that Corexit was accidentally sprayed on a boat full of people in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. According to the MSDS, those people should have experienced symptoms described in that section: EYE CONTACT: Can cause mild irritation.SKIN CONTACT: May cause irritation with prolonged contact. INGESTION: Not a likely route of exposure. May cause nausea and vomiting. Can cause chemical pneumonia if aspirated into lungs following ingestion. INHALATION: Repeated or prolonged exposure may irritate the respiratory tract. SYMPTOMS OF EXPOSURE: Acute: A review of available data does not identify any symptoms from exposure not previously mentioned.Chronic: Frequent or prolonged contact with product may defat and dry the skin, leading to discomfort and dermatitis. AGGRAVATION OF EXISTING CONDITIONS: Skin contact may aggravate an existing dermatitis condition.

Interestingly, there are some chronic exposure conditions listed in this section. Chronic would be the effects of long-term or repeated exposure. Incidentally, the people on the boat that was directly sprayed with Corexit were reportedly hospitalized and remain disabled to this day. I don’t have any confirmation of those fact – just what I have read from multiple news stories (that for all I know were written by the same person).

Now I am going to skip the stuff that seems self-explanatory in the MSDS. If it is not, feel free to comment and ask questions and I will post explanations. I’ll now write about some general observations about the MSDS sheet that present some tricky information for the uninformed. First, let me say that Nalco is simply doing what nearly every company does on an MSDS.

The tox data or toxicity data are presented for each of the compounds listed above, but not for the composite chemical including proprietary information. This is particularly true of the acute toxicity data. Those are the data that show that if a rat ate Corexit it would have to eat a certain amount to die. However, these data are presented for the ingredients listed or for general categories of the ingredients – each component, not Corexit itself.

Let me show you how to read and interpret this part of the label as it is in metric measurements, which some people have trouble applying to an everyday situation. For a portion of Corexit – oxyalkalate polymer – the value listed is 36,400 mg/kg for rat. That means a rat would have to eat 0.6 ounces per pound of body weight for that particular component of Corexit to kill it. Nalco likely got these values from previous research on that compound and may not have produced these values themselves.

The problem with this is a concept called synergism. First, we have no way of knowing whether synergism is occurring. The best way to explain synergism is that normally chemical A may have a tox factor of 1 ounce per pound of body weight and another chemical B may have 0.5 ounces per pound of body weight. If you mix them together equally it is assumed that it would take 0.75 ounces per pound of body weight to kill the test organism. When synergism occurs, the toxicity of a compound increases disproportionately to the additive effects of the two together. So in the example above the tox factor of chemicals A+B might be 0.25 ounces per pound of body weight. Like I wrote earlier, we have no way of knowing whether Corexit is one of these compounds that exhibits synergism. The MSDS sheet needs to be updated with information about the mammalian toxicity of the whole chemical.

I think this is enough information for right now. I’ll be happy to take questions and comments. There will be more about Corexit EC9500A in the days to come. Please tell your friends about this blog and point me to your blog if you have one. Cheers!

Why a blog and why now?

I am a scientist, and I am an author. I’ve got a lot to say about scientific results, how science is conducted, science in the news, and how scientists themselves behave. I’ve used scientific trade journals and the New York Times Op-Ed page as outlets for some of these writings. Now I’ll use this blog as a more immediate outlet for some of the things I’ve been thinking about and talking with people about. Many of you have asked for this blog – so here it is.

Before I begin: Let’s talk about how I think this should work. I’ll post things I’ve been thinking about or investigating and you should make comments. Please comment and comment often. If you think I am wrong, tell me but tell me why. Support your statements with evidence as I will. Please keep your comments family friendly. My child might read this someday.

If you flame a fellow commenter, I will delete your comment. If you flame me, I’ll probably leave it there – maybe not, if it’s really ugly. I am interested in intelligent discourse so back up what you have to say with solid evidence. I am happy to have commenters who disagree with me. Just be sure to back up what you say with verifiable information. 

Additionally, feel free to request that I address an issue you think might be of interest to the readers of this blog. If I know anything about the topic, I might write on it. If I don’t know anything about it, I might learn something and write about it.

I also will talk a bit about the craft of writing as that is something I am investigating more and more. Part of effective science communication is choosing the best words and sentence pattern for your message.

Thanks for reading!