California oil spill revives EWG’s fears about toxic dispersants, weak EPA rules

Cleanup chemicals pose risks for human health, environment

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Efforts to clean up the massive oil spill off southern California’s coast should carefully consider the risks of using toxic dispersants, warns the Environmental Working Group, given the harm the chemicals caused after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“It’s important we learn from the actions taken more than a decade ago, when the federal government deployed millions of gallons of harmful chemical dispersants in response to the BP spill,” said Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., an EWG toxicologist and expert on the environmental and public health impacts of dispersants.

The chemicals break up large patches of oil and are typically used for hard-to-manage spills farther offshore than the southern California incident.

The dispersants used after the BP spill created several harms. “Dispersants are toxic themselves, and when applied, in many cases can make the crude oil itself more toxic to both marine life and people,” Temkin said.

The southern California spill was first reported last weekend. So far, it has released more than 144,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean and fouled miles of Orange County’s coastline. The spill began with a pipeline rupture, which may have occurred after an anchor from a large cargo ship dropped on it.

Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp., which owns and operates the pipeline, has “amassed a long record of federal noncompliance incidents and violations,” says an October 4 Los Angeles Times report. The company recently came out of bankruptcy.

It’s unclear whether the cleanup will rely on dispersants. But studies show that dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe may have acted counter to their intended use, possibly preventing the breakdown of oil from microorganisms and failing to effectively prevent oil from reaching the surface.

Ingredients used in dispersants and other products may increase the production of fat cells, which in turn may raise the risk of obesity in people exposed, according to a 2016 peer-reviewed study led by Temkin.

In its settlement with the federal government following the 2010 spill, BP was ordered to pay $500 million to fund a research initiative focusing on environmental and human health risks arising from the disaster.

Those at greatest risk of harm from dispersants are oil spill response and cleanup workers.

Other research of workers who cleaned up the BP spill found exposure to dispersants caused burning in the nose, throat, eyes or lungs and tightness in the chest.

Additional studies of those workers found some association with poorer memory and attention outcomes. A number of BP cleanup workers suffered from reduced lung function but did regain it between four and six years later. Other longer-term health effects are still being studied.

“The scientific community has learned a tremendous amount about oil spill science and cleanup in the past decade,” Temkin said. “Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has dragged its feet updating oil spill response regulations on the use of dispersants.”

“There’s no excuse for Californians to suffer yet another oil-soaked coastline thanks to the fossil fuel industry,” said EWG President and California resident Ken Cook.

“The potential harms of dispersants, which EWG has been warning about for years, needs to strongly be considered before they are used to clean up this latest catastrophic spill,” he said.

In the aftermath of the BP spill and multiple reports of cleanup workers becoming ill, public pressure from EWG, members of Congress and others forced the EPA to release information about the chemicals that had been shielded from the public under a confidentiality provision in federal toxics law.

In July 2010, three months after the BP spill started, Cook testified before a Senate hearing about the risks of using dispersants in response to that disaster, and the lack of data available to the public and policymakers about the chemical ingredients.

“We walked into this almost completely blind, almost completely unprepared to understand” the environmental and health risks of dispersants, Cook testified at the time.

Following the California spill, Cook said, “More than 10 years after the BP disaster, we’re no longer going into these cleanups blind. ”

In August, a California federal district court judge sided with environmentalists in ordering the EPA to update its dispersants rules no later than May 31, 2023.


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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