Dr. Wiley would not approve: BP's Corexit mythology

What part of Photo: Rachel Read

This month Orange Beach, Ala., resident Margaret Long discovered residue of BP’s dispersant of choice – Corexit – floating by her house on Cotton Bayou. The uncomfortable proximity of toxic dispersant is not a surprise to those of us living in Gulf states.

Harvey Wiley in his laboratory; heart shaped oil glob at Gulf Shores, AL (Photo courtesy Rachel Read)

Harvey Wiley in his laboratory; heart shaped oil glob at Gulf Shores, AL (Photo courtesy Rachel Read)

Two months ago, I strolled along the Gulf Shores, Ala., beach to find a long, snaky boom floating across the surf and “BP mobiles” (as we dubbed them) scuttling about, scraping petroleum residue off the white sand. While examining the boom, I stepped on a sticky tar ball. Along with other beachgoers, I had to stand in line near the hose and bucket labeled “Tar Wash” to scrub the stubborn substance off my bare feet. One man present told me about a friend of his having asthmatic attacks during a beach visit. “From the petroleum in the air?” I asked. He seemed to both nod and shrug at once. The air did have a faint tarlike odor.

But, ironically, the petroleum substance causing allergic reactions probably didn’t spill out of the depths of the Gulf.

The petroleum-based dispersant employed by BP in cleaning up the worst environmental disaster on record actually may be an agent of disaster in itself.  Corexit is fast becoming an infamous name, with the toxicity of its makeup being more than suspicious. The same brand of dispersant was used during cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill more than 20 years ago, and the average lifespan of every cleanup member exposed to it is 51 years. Nearly all of those crew members are now dead.

None of this matters to a panicking oil company, of course. Corexit is government approved.

But government approval isn’t genuinely worth much and hasn’t been for quite a while.  To figure that out, simply follow the story of Harvey Wiley (1844-1930), chief of the Bureau of Chemistry (a precursor to the FDA). He also happens to be the star of the screenplay mentioned in my silly little bio. During the Teddy Roosevelt administration, Wiley managed to bring the hazardous adulterations in the food and drug industries to the attention of Congress. After years of researching the effects of preservatives and additives used by many manufacturers, Wiley helped write the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

The law was barely enacted before a convoluted legal battle took place that manipulated the definitions of the act for the dissenting manufacturers’ benefit. The Pure Food and Drug Law was far too popular nationwide to overturn, so the companies that were sloppy in their practices managed to find scientists who produced data that made their crimes look less heinous. Their allies in Congress subsequently amended the law to suite their tastes. The result was power vested in a new board of unscrupulous scientists instead of the Bureau of Chemistry. All the substances that Wiley predicted would insidiously cause disease – from sodium benzoate to saccharin – were “government approved,” and the American public has been consuming them (plus more) for more than a century.

Thus, BP’s Corexit splurge is certainly not the first time that long-term health and safety has been sacrificed for short-term profit.

We could possibly cut the instigators at BP a little slack if no other cleanup option existed. But, in reality, there are plenty of effective, less toxic and natural methods available, such as that offered by OSEI. Corexit is actually known to be less effective than some of the other options. Furthermore, we have even more vivid historical and scientific evidence of its harmfulness than Wiley ever could have acquired about toxic preservatives through his Poison Squad: We have the chilling aftermath of the Exxon Valdez cleanup to observe!

But money speaks louder than evidence to ticklish ears.

Nalco, the synthetics company that makes Corexit, has Rodney F. Chase among its board of directors. Before coming to Nalco, Chase worked at BP for 38 years. That leaves much financial expediency to the imagination. Furthermore, BP obviously wants to dump into the sea whatever it takes to make the oil “disappear” quickly and easily, and, thus, help keep its fines low and reputation high. The dissenting manufacturers in Wiley’s day wanted to dump into their sub-par products whatever it took to make them look fresh and nutritious and, thus, keep their profits and reputation high. Both schemes have been scorned by the American public – we the people who end up suffering the consequences.

The primary purpose of our nation’s government is to protect its people. Wiley insisted that, for the safety of the American people, the Bureau of Chemistry ought to abide by the standard that no substances are to be released to the public until first proved harmless. The Food and Drug Administration standard of today seems to have eroded to allow anything on the market until it is proved harmful.  Based on the dispersants given the green light, the Environmental Protection Agency seems no different.  I have to add here that the FDA seems to have jumped onto the Corexit bandwagon, even arguing back in May:

“As part of FDA’s effort to monitor the development of this crisis and its potential impact on the safety of seafood harvested from the Gulf of Mexico, this is an assessment of the potential toxic human health impact of the chemical dispersants as per their potential to adversely impact seafood…Though early dispersants contained agents highly toxic to marine life, manufacturers have refined formulations of more recent generations of dispersants to dramatically reduce toxicity…In conclusion, the available information indicates that dispersants have little or no effect on the bioaccumulation potential of oil contaminants, nor do they themselves accumulate in seafood.”

That argument sounds eerily similar to arguments with which Wiley was faced.  I don’t mean to make you ill, but that’s coming from the same department that approves the food and medicine on your shelves. 

While researching for and writing The Crusading Chemist (which I hope to revise again), one of the historical threads I discovered and worked to incorporate into the script is the tension between government and science. Government, in this sense, can refer to the political operations of a country or company, and, by nature, it desires some sort of stable, unchanging system to rule. Science, however, is a tentative medium. In politics, tentative equals manipulative.

At the beginning of this month, federal scientists were unabashedly announcing that most of the oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico was gone. In other words, “Look, our strategy is working! The dispersant is busting up the oil – who cares if it’s busting red blood cells too?”

But soon scientists in Georgia called attention to evidence that perhaps 80 percent of the spilled oil remains, merely drifting deep beneath the surface of the sea. That’s what Corexit does — mess with the oil’s molecular structure so that it sinks rather than floats. The oil spill is being swept under the rug, not cleaned up.

Reflect for a moment on the origin of this disaster. It wasn’t oil or offshore drilling alone that contributed to it.  These industries offer a great deal to our economy and should not be naively considered to only equal bizarre disaster.  Rather, notice that it was the preposterous notion of drilling in dangerously deep water that initiated the fiasco.

Meanwhile, 19 million acres of flat, empty, essentially barren land brimming with oil are sitting atop Alaska: ANWR. As Greta Van Susteren discovered while touring the enormous state with Todd and Sarah Palin, many misconceptions about ANWR exist because of misleading agendas. So, while BP is shooting itself (and the coast – and ocean life) in the foot way out at sea, there is untapped potential way out in no-man’s land that could be utilized in far safer ways.

The ruthless antics of British Petroleum are not signs of a capitalist problem or whatever-ideology-is-politically-expedient-to-attack problem. They are rooted in the human problem of careless ambition. As sources of order and information, both government and science are powerful tools. But, as human institutions, both are only a human ego away from imploding.

Powerful men can’t stand to be proved wrong.

Amanda Read is an unconventional scholar, a Southerner without an accent, a Christian who hasn’t been a churchgoer in 16 years and a college student who lives with eight younger siblings. A writer and artist, she blogs at www.amandaread.com and is the author of the historical drama screenplay The Crusading Chemist. Amanda is majoring in history and minoring in political science at Jacksonville State University.

Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/SincerelyAmanda and Facebook at www.facebook.com/AmandaChristineRead. Read more at www.amandaread.com.


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Amanda Read

Amanda Read is a columnist for the Communities at The Washington Times. Trained as a historian, skilled as a writer, and aspiring to be a filmmaker, Amanda investigates the ideas behind contemporary culture and politics. A professional writer and researcher, she is also a Christian homeschool graduate, unconventional college graduate, military daughter, and eldest of the nine Read children at Fair Hills Farm. Find more of her work at www.amandaread.com

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