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Easy Sustainability Answers

What are the ingredients in the dispersants used in the BP oil spill cleanup?

Adriene Hill Jul 14, 2010

Easy Answer: Just ask the EPA.</strong

To help clean up all that oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has been dousing the area with something called a chemical dispersant, which breaks down the oil into small droplets. The government say nearly 1.8 million gallons of the stuff have been dumped into the Gulf so far.

As we reported today on Marketplace, there is growing concern about the safety of these chemicals ending up in the seafood we eat. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been testing seafood from the Gulf for oil to prevent contaminated food from reaching your dinner table. But they haven’t been on the look out for dispersant.

Warning: Hazardous to your health?
The warning label on Corexit EC9500A, the primary dispersant being used in the Gulf, says this about ingesting the chemical: “May cause nausea and vomiting. Can cause chemical pneumonia if aspirated into lungs following ingestion.”

See the ingredients after the jump.

NOAA and the FDA both say that they’re not worried about dispersant in seafood. According to the FDA, dispersant can’t penetrate the bodies or gills of fish. But, just in case, they’re coming up with a test.

What’s it made of?
Responding to a request from the EPA last month, Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit, handed over a detailed ingredient list. Here are the highlights for your browsing pleasure:

Well start with the ingredients that are listed as hazardous:
– Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light
– Propylene Glycol
– Organic sulfonic acid salt

Other ingredients can be found in common household products, Nalco said on its website. Those are:

  • Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate.
    Nalco stated on its website that it is used in skin cream, body shampoo, and as an emulsifier in juice.

  • Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs
    Nalco says this is an ingredient in “baby bath, mouth wash, face lotion, and as an emulsifier in food.”

  • Sorbitan, tri-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs
    This is also found in body and face lotions, and tanning lotions, according to the manufacturer.

  • Butanedioic acid, 2-sulfo-, 1,4-bis(2-ethylhexyl) ester, sodium salt (1:1)
    This ingredient is also used as a wetting agent in cosmetic products, gelatin, and beverages, the company said.

  • Propanol, 1-(2-butoxy-1-methylethoxy)
    This is an ingredient also found in common household cleaning products

Hydrotreated light
– This ingredient is also used in air fresheners and cleaners.

Photo top: Philippine Coastguard personnels aboard a search and rescue vessel, spray oil dispersant chemical in Guimaras Strait 01 September 2006 around the site where the oil tanker Solar 1 sank. Photo left: Steve Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program, demonstrates sensory analysis of a sample of shrimp on July 8, 2010 at NOAA’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula. Courtesy Monica Allen/NOAA.

Matt Berger contributed to this report.

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