Co-written with Dr. Martin J. Dudziak
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) asked EPA head, Lisa Jackson, if dispersants could become the "Agent Orange of the Gulf," and then opened the door to the possibility that Mikulski will subpoena the manufacturer, Nalco Holding Co. at a future date. The maker of Corexit 9500 refused to attend the Senate Appropriations science subcommittee hearing on Thursday.
Mikulski began mildly, saying "I am sorry they did not come," but by the end of her blistering questioning of Jackson, it was clear that the Senator was like a pit-bull with a bone and was not going to let Jackson's deference to "lawyers" ride, adding "we don't have time for a lot of in-house bureaucratic vetting or screwing around."
It sounded like someone was finally in charge besides Joint Unified Command's NOAA, the Coast Guard, BP and the EPA. "We need to tighten up so we don't screw up," Mikulski charged.
This was the same day that BP had hopefully capped the wellhead that began spewing anywhere from 60-100,000 barrels of oil a day since April 20. BP has used more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant in the Gulf since the catastrophe began in April; angering environmentalists, scientists and Gulf Coast residents over the potential for long-term public health consequences.
Jackson looked worse than an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay as she tried to extricate herself from Mikulski's sticky questions. The Senator from Maryland demanded to know why Jackson did not know the extent or limits of her authority as head of the EPA to order that BP stop the use of Corexit. In response to a direct question from Mikulski as to whether she, Jackson, could ban or limit the use of dispersants, or whether Admiral Thad Allen has the ultimate authority, Jackson hedged, blinked and said it was "a matter of untested law," adding "I would not know, I am not an attorney."
"You are the head of the EPA. That is the question you needed to know from day one, Ms. Jackson... because look everyone at this table we are coastal residents, we love our coast Guard... but the Coast Guard are not scientists they are under the Department of Homeland Security.
And Gulf Coast residents do not feel secure."
Even as the news spreads that the latest cap over the Deepwater Horizon (Macando) well is functioning and that no more crude oil and other hydrocarbons are spilling into the Gulf waters, a seething storm of uncertainty remains. No one knows the consequences of exposure to the dispersants discussed in Mikulski's hearing, as well as hydrocarbon-dispersant combinations that are in the water, air, and soil; affecting the living inhabitants of the Gulf region, including the human population.
There is some data being collected about some of the better known VOCs (volatile organic carbons) and compounds that are classified as "IDLH" -- Immediate Danger to Life and Health. The EPA released a new database on the popular document-sharing network Socrata this week.
It amounts to an unfathomable morass of confusion, contradiction, and omission that is nearly impossible to navigate. What do all these numbers mean, and what are the real consequences for not only people who are living in the Gulf coastal regions but for visitors, transient relief and cleanup workers, and people who are either "just passing through" ( traveling I-10 from Florida to Texas) or living miles inland? How should people interpret tables of the parts-per-million and parts-per-billion for compounds and chemicals that accompanies the oil spread from the Gulf oil disaster?
In the case of chemical exposure related to the BP catastrophe, there is a scarcity of reliable information. The sampling that has taken place has been in very limited scope as to location and time. Secondly, a massive but also uncertain amount of hydrocarbon mixtures derived from the crude oil, the released gases, and the mixtures resulting from heavy dispersant use remain in the Gulf and also within inland waterways, including estuaries and bodies such as Lake Pontchartrain.
No one knows the total amounts of crude oil and related compounds that have been released from beneath the seafloor, and scientists can only make rough estimates about how much of that material is in a form that can be pushed inland through storm action. For many of the more dangerous chemicals, it is hard to predict what types of levels we will see and for how long they will continue.
As far as "acceptable" exposure levels are concerned, we are left with comparisons. We can look at numbers derived on the Gulf and say they may be higher or lower than what is permissible for exposure at a gas pump, or higher or lower than numbers permissible for BP workers on the rigs, on cleanup, or in their offices, but it is all numbers that have no relation to each other. OSHA numbers are higher than the NIOSH limits and EPA numbers target specific locations and don't take atmospheric conditions, or distance from the main source, into account. It is hit or miss sampling, and hit or miss evaluations by the regulatory agencies that were put in place to protect us.
What matters to the health of humans and many other species, including almost everything that is considered to be part of the human food chain, including vegetables, fruits, and dairy products, is the type of exposure, the duration and repetition of exposure, and also the biological conditions of the exposed person, animal or plant. The condition of a person's lungs and cardiovascular system make a difference in how one can react and be affected.
An enormous number of factors can determine the level of reaction to exposure -- whether that reaction be chronic and lifespan-reducing conditions, a passing ailment with no long-term effects, or simply a bad smell, a bad taste, and no ill effects.
To make a simple analogy, it is a bit like how one can get certain effects from alcoholic beverages when wide awake vs. when tired or stressed vs. in combination with other drugs such as barbiturates or anti-depressants.
Does this mean that people should panic, avoid the Gulf area, or buy no Gulf seafood? That would be an unreasonable jump to the other extreme. What this does mean is that a much larger rate and expanse of testing and monitoring needs to be done, using both the simplest of instruments, including basic eye-nose-ear-throat observation, and the most sophisticated tests.
Then the data needs to be correlated, brought into already-developed models that can be used as a baseline, and extrapolated for what is likely to be the case tomorrow and next week and next month.
The technology is simple to use, inexpensive, and can be the basis for providing jobs as well. Some scientists have been struggling for months to get "doors" to open within the Unified Command and within BP to allow sampling techniques the EPA, CDC and other agencies, plus counterparts in other countries, have either approved or have been using for years. It is possible to do large-scale "mapping" of environmental health and safety and produce much better results than EPA tables that mean little to non-specialist civilians and that are not useful to scientists either.
The technology exists to do baseline monitoring, including the devices, software, and people-power to do things like carry hand-held instruments along beaches, in streams and ponds, in catches of shrimp and crab, in backyards, front yards, and children's bedrooms.
We need to have wide-spread monitoring and testing, including public health walk-up testing for people, if we are to avoid having a future wave of disease, immune system weakness, infections, organ failures, and a host of other medical misfortunes in degrees from mild to severe.
It is time to act and not "screw up" as Mikulski said, or we will be facing more than heartburn.
Martin Dudziak obtained his PhD in theoretical physics, progressed deeper into biophysics and nanomedical research, served on the faculty of VCU's Medical College, and also worked for Battelle, Intel and STM. He is deeply involved in chemical/biological sensing and analytics, and emergency/disaster response.