Scientists Dispute Government Stance on the Lingering Effects of Gulf Oil

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Pro Publica

Scientists Dispute Government Stance on the Lingering Effects of Gulf Oil

by
Marian Wang

A fisherman runs his small shrimping skiff through a bayou on Monday near Dularge, La. A new study published this week calls into question the safety of Gulf seafood. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As we've noted,
scientists seemed, on the whole, rather skeptical when a government
report said most of the oil from BP's well was gone from the Gulf of Mexico. [1] Now the pushback against the government's stance has grown, with several scientific reports released this week.

Researchers at the University of Georgia found that up to 79 percent
of the oil released into the Gulf "has not been recovered and remains a
threat to the ecosystem." This "strongly contradicts [2]"
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's report and the press
coverage of it, according to a statement from the university.

"The news media's tendency to interpret ‘dispersed' and
‘dissolved' as ‘gone' is wrong," the report read. "Dispersed and
dissolved forms can be highly toxic." (Read the full report [3] in our document viewer.)

Scientists at the University of South Florida seem to agree. They
announced this week that while on a research mission in the Gulf, they
had used UV lighting to detect what was likely oil contained in sediment
on the ocean floor. (More [4] on the use of UV lighting to detect oil.)

"It wasn't like a drape, don't get me wrong, or like a blanket of
oil," chief scientist David Hollander said on a conference call with
journalists. "Rather, it looked like a constellation of stars that were
at the scale of microdroplets. They seemed to be at every location we
looked east of the wellhead."

The scientists cautioned that materials other than oil could have the
same type of ultraviolet fluorescence that they observed, and that
further testing was needed to positively identify the substances as oil,
particularly as oil from BP's well. (These are the same scientists [5]
who, early on, discovered the deepwater plumes of oil and insisted upon
chemically fingerprinting their samples to verify that they matched
BP's oil.)

The USF scientists also announced that they found
phytoplankton-organisms that make up the basis of the Gulf food web-in
poor health, and noted that they appeared to be more negatively affected
by dispersant than were bacteria, which seemed more sensitive to the
oil. (Read their report [6].) "The waters have a toxicity that needs to be recognized," Hollander said.

Finally, the Journal of the American Medical Association also published a study [7]
this week that called into question the government's assertions about
the safety of Gulf seafood. According to the report's authors-Gina
Solomon and Sarah Janssen, both medical doctors [8]
affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council-vertebrate marine
life can clear oil hydrocarbons from their systems, but the "chemicals
accumulate for years in invertebrates" such as shrimp, crabs and
oysters.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has been testing Gulf seafood for oil hydrocarbons [9],
disagreed with the study's findings, maintaining that its testing was
thorough. The agency told McClatchy Newspapers that officials have a
program to test contamination in shellfish and have not found problems [10].

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