Dispersants Demonstrate Flaws in Chemical Policy

05/27/2010 10:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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I applauded last week when EPA ordered BP to switch to a safer chemical dispersant. After all, when a patient is undergoing treatment, they need to be getting the safest and most effective drug available. The Gulf is in the throes of a life-threatening emergency, and there have been serious questions about the "treatment" BP has chosen to use.

But this week, when BP released their response to the EPA order, the flaws of the U.S. chemical safety system came back to bite us. In a nutshell, BP refused to switch dispersants because, among other reasons, they say there’s not enough information about their safety.

The information gaps do indeed run deep.

Tables in the BP memo contain a row that is supposed to list: “Persistence, bioaccumulation, and chronic effects, and endocrine disruption” for the various dispersants, but the boxes in that section contain the words “Proprietary mixture” for almost all the products. That means that the public has no access to the full ingredients lists of these products, or any ability to independently verify their safety. Amazingly, neither does BP! 

In fact, the BP memo complains about the information gap and cites this as a reason for not switching to other dispersants. But the information gaps don’t stop there: Major portions of BP’s memo have been redacted -- there are big portions of blank space in the document with notations saying: "confidential information." So the public can’t even review much of BP’s analysis of the alternatives.

These information gaps have their root in a chemical policy law that was passed in the 1970’s that put in place broad protections for "confidential business information." I have blogged about this problem before in other contexts, including in my own medical practice when I have trouble obtaining information about chemicals to which my patients are exposed. It is a continuous source of frustration to me as a physician and an environmental scientist – I need to know what the hidden ingredients are in products in order to protect my patients and the public. Right now we definitely need to know what's in these alternative dispersants in order to understand the risks and trade-offs.

The good news is that legislation has been introduced in Congress to amend the chemical safety law and to provide more information to the public about toxic chemicals and ingredients. Read my blog about what the Safe Chemicals Act does to protect our health. Today I’m asking you to join our coalition effort to get this legislation passed. Now is the time to require chemical manufacturers to disclose their trade secrets. The dispersant debacle is proof enough that it’s time for change.

If you want to learn more about dispersants, check out my colleague, Dr. Linda Greer's video blog on the facts and science of dispersants here.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.