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Scientists: Dispersant Health Impacts a "Failure of Chemicals Policy"

June 11, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. - More than one million gallons of chemicals called dispersants have been sprayed into the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to break up the plume emanating from the B.P. oil spill, but some of the key ingredients were kept secret until this week. They finally were revealed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) following a public outcry over health problems experienced by some clean-up workers. One of the ingredients used in the early stages of clean-up - 2-butoxy ethanol - is designated a chronic and acute health hazard and was linked to health problems experienced by cleanup workers following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Richard Denison, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, says putting Gulf workers at risk is an example of what he calls a failed federal chemicals policy.

"The current law does not mandate that EPA assess the actual safety of dispersants or their ingredients."

The dispersant manufacturer said it preferred to keep the ingredients secret because they consider the formula proprietary. But, Louisiana chemist and activist Wilma Subra says, until the full ingredients list was released Wednesday, many of the health care professionals treating possible dispersant-linked health problems weren't sure what to do.

"People who went for medical assistance were not able to have appropriate medical treatment because of lack of information about what the chemicals were."

Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that, before the full ingredients list for the dispersant formula, Corexit 9527, was released Wednesday, one of the only sources for safety information was a data sheet, which had very little information about actual safety risks, except one disturbing note.

"That it causes mutation in, 'microorganism, not otherwise specified.' What is someone supposed to do with that information?"

Denison's group is part of a coalition of 250 environmental and public health organizations calling for an overhaul of the three-decades-old Toxic Substances Control Act. He says that law would encourage innovation and the development of safer, more effective dispersants. An overhaul bill, known as the Safe Chemicals Act, is pending in the Senate, and is expected to be voted on this summer.

The EPA's list of ingredients is available at www.epa.gov/bpspill/dispersants.html#list.

Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service - CT