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Spring 2011

Deepwater Disaster. Toxicologists confront questions with Gulf oil spill


Collecting Samples

Aboard “Riptide,” Smith, Smith and Wages kept a close eye out for mats of oil. Collecting it had proven harder than first thought, but the chartered vessel took them into the thick of the spill heading rapidly to the east and threatening Florida’s panhandle. The strange flattened waves became a beacon for upcoming oil.

“We started to see a change – it’s hard to explain – sort of a change in the choppiness in the water,” said Phil Smith, an associate professor at the institute. “There was something different about it. It was smoother, almost like that certain area was shielded from the wind or something. We were all on the lookout for oil. We were hoping we’d be able to find some oil so we could collect samples to take back to Texas Tech.”

Altogether, they collected four five-gallon buckets of the rust-colored crude, a few gallons of water from the smooth, calm areas covered with a rainbow sheen and containing smaller tar droplets, and a few gallons of plain seawater collected closer to shore, which they believed to be uncontaminated.

During the next few weeks, researchers at TIEHH began testing the samples to find out their composition, Ernest Smith said.

“The No. 1 thing we want to do is help,” he said. “What is needed there is a significant amount of toxicology on human and animal health. I think the institute has a major role to play in the understanding of ecological and human health effects of this crude. In addition to that, I am interested in the socioeconomic impacts and how this will play out both directly and indirectly.

“For me it’s important that the socioeconomics problems get some attention. Over the long term, if we ignore that, it will be just as devastating as the ecosystem. It definitely needs a voice.”

Mixed Drink

More than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants have been used in the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest use of these types of chemicals in U.S. history. However, Kendall said dispersing the oil could cause more problems than having left the oil alone.

He compared the heavy use of the dispersants to pouring mineral spirits on a puddle of oil on a garage floor. Though the oil is dispersed, it isn’t removed. Instead, it becomes thinner, more easily moved around and harder to mop up. The affected area becomes larger as well.

Ron Kendall speaks before the Senate committee on Environmental and Public Works

Ron Kendall, speaking before the Senate committee, said there is very limited information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean.
View Committee Proceedings

Speaking to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Kendall called for more independent, peer-reviewed research before any determinations could be made on the oil spill’s long-term ecological effects.

“We have very limited information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean,” Kendall said. “We have very little information on the ecological effects of this particular oil and dispersant mixture in terms of acute, chronic and indirect effects on marine and coastal organisms. And given the volume of oil and dispersant that have been released into the Gulf of Mexico, we have a very poor understanding of the ultimate ecosystem level effects, which may occur in the weeks, to months, to years ahead.”

Though a recent news release from Nalco, makers of the dispersants, claims “further federal testing has concluded that the use of the Corexit dispersant remains a safe, effective and critical tool in mitigating additional damage in the Gulf,” Kendall said he believed there were too many variables in play to make such a claim.“

“The heavy use of dispersant has created so many forms of the oil now,” he said. “Some of the oil is extremely dispersed in the water column. It appears some of it is in plumes floating in the Gulf. Other parts of it have floated to the surface and a ‘chocolate mousse’ has formed. And they’re mixed now with the dispersant. The sea bottom, the water column and the surface are distributed with oil, and then there’s the oil approaching and making landfall on shoreline. We’ve got all kinds of exposure scenarios for many different species of fish and wildlife.”

After Texas Tech researchers received their first sample of Corexit 9500 from Nalco, Todd Anderson, an environmental chemist and toxicologist at TIEHH, said his group began looking at how pollutants move in the environment and how they get into organisms.

“After quite a bit of struggle, we finally got some Corexit,” he said. “It’s somewhat unprecedented the volume of dispersants being used and the depths at which it’s being applied. There are some unknown questions about the potential interaction of Corexit and the oil. There have been toxicological studies done on the Corexit itself, and numerous toxicology studies done on the effects of oil. But the interaction of those is somewhat of an unknown question.”

Corexit breaks oil into smaller droplets, he said. That doesn’t mean the oil is gone – it’s just more widely dispersed in various parts of the Gulf ecosystem. But not only that, questions remain as to the Corexit’s impact when it encounters the oil, such as could it enhance certain toxicological aspects of the oil once treated.

“Corexit is pretty fascinating stuff in that it takes a really small amount of the dispersant to have an impact,” Anderson said. “We essentially put a drop of the Corexit into a system of oil and water, and it was pretty fascinating what it did to that little piece of oil. We added more Corexit to see if it enhanced dispersion even more, and it didn’t do that. A relatively small volume impacts or has that dispersant effect. If you go beyond that, it doesn’t enhance it any further. I don’t know what it means toxicologically. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Chemically, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.”

With the volume of oil spilled somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons, this can create a significant exposure scenario for fish and wildlife, he said.

Currently, researchers are testing its effects on invertebrates, fish and tissue samples from endangered sea turtles, whales and dolphins.

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After receiving a shipment of Louisiana seafood samples collected by a reporter with "Good Morning America," researchers at Texas Tech University found no evidence of petroleum hydrocarbons.

Good Morning America’s Test

After receiving a shipment of Louisiana seafood samples collected by a reporter with “Good Morning America,” researchers at Texas Tech University found no evidence of petroleum hydrocarbons.

Though these samples were clean, the sample size was small, and more research is necessary before the full picture can be seen, Kendall said.

“Our detection limits would have detected selected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) had they been there, even at very low levels,” Kendall said. “Everyone should realize the sample size was extremely small and that these data represent just a snapshot of time and space. We believe sampling and analyses should continue, and that independent science-based research needs to continue.”

Scientists are concerned about PAHs because some of them are known carcinogens.

Producers with the morning news program asked TIEHH researchers to test the seafood samples prior to the federal government’s opening of waters to fishing on Aug. 16. Reporter Matt Gutman sent the samples from Bastian Bay, La., where he reported live.

“We collected the samples Monday in Bastian Bay,” Gutman said. “It is an area where we've found oil on the sediment. We filmed it all, including the bagging. The fishermen used a net but found no evidence of oil directly on any of the samples.”

Gutman’s samples included shrimp, of which nine were tested from three separate locations, four oysters, two bait fish, a flounder and a speckled trout. Once tissues were extracted, scientists analyzed them using gas chromatography with mass spectrometry. The process is used to determine substances within a specific test sample and is widely regarded as the gold standard for forensic substance identification.

“We were particularly interested in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which can be carcinogenic,” Anderson said. “The analytical results revealed that the PAHs we analyzed for were below detection limits of our instrumentation and far below any levels of concern as regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

No End In Sight

The occasional sounds of sea birds filled the air and brown pelicans flew past the airboat moving along the oil-soaked edges of salt marshes near Plaquemines Parish, La.

Steve Presley, a zoonotic disease researcher at TIEHH, surveyed the booms pushed far into the grasses only days after Hurricane Alex had blown through. He carried with him a new prototype material being developed by TIEHH to more effectively pick up the pasty “chocolate mousse” crude oil material.

“It’s a war going on trying to stop that oil as it moves in to the salt marshes,” he said. “The salt grass mats are the environmentally rich areas for fishing and seafood, oyster beds, shrimp – everything. They’re trying to stop the oil as it penetrates deeper and deeper into that marsh.”

fibertect - a nonwoven cotton wipe created by researchers at Texas Tech University

Fibertect® is a nonwoven cotton wipe used by the U.S. military for decontamination of biological and chemical warfare agents. The wipe has also been used as a medium for mopping up oil.

seshadri ramkumar associate professor Texas Tech University, TIEHH

Seshadri Ramkumar is an associate professor of nonwoven materials and countermeasures to biological and chemical threats at TIEHH, and the creator of Fibertect®

Presley hoped the new product could be useful to workers to aid in cleanup or the prevention of more oil washing into the marshes. He and nonwoven fabric researcher, Seshadri Ramkumar, are creating an effective nonwoven material similar to Fibertect®, a cotton wipe with a carbon core used to clean up biological and chemical warfare agents by the U.S. military, but specifically designed to stop oil from eating away more marsh.

Keeping the oil at bay has been a problem. Once booms are coated, oil mats can find their way over or under booms as high tide pushes oil into the grass. Low tide sucks water out of the marsh but re-coats the grass with oil. Once coated, the sun cooks the oil and kills the grass, leaving behind an area looking much like a slowly burning West Texas prairie fire.

Ramkumar said the new product is made from 100 percent raw cotton designed to target oil alone, where as Fibertect®  has the capability of both oil and vapors. The specially designed material will be made into absorbent pads and sorbent booms, which are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the polypropylene booms being used now.

“Texas Tech’s Nonwovens and Advance Materials Laboratory has perfected the needlepunch nonwoven machine to process raw cotton straight from a bale produced in West Texas to develop lightweight and heavyweight cotton nonwovens,” Ramkumar said. “Our extensive research with different materials, such as raw cotton, commercially available polypropylene oil absorbents, human hair and wool has shown that cotton comes to be the best candidate for absorbing at least two to three times that of commercial polypropylene oil pads.”

The product is almost ready to go, he said, and the United States Nonwovens Industry has the capability to produce absorbent pad and materials from raw cotton in huge quantities depending on the availability of cotton.

Presley said that even after capping, the shores received another 85 days of oil. And even after that, there’s the ecological and economic rebuilding process that may take years or even decades to repair.

“From a humanistic standpoint, they’re truly fighting for their survival down there,” Presley said. “I didn’t realize how devastating at the grassroots level this could be. It’s an environmental tragedy, but the human tragedy is the economic impact on the region that’s really only now getting back on its feet after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They’re all worried down there. And when I say ‘they,’ I mean the fishermen, the people of New Orleans and of Plaquemines Parish. They are worried that the national attention will no longer be focused on their problem now that the well is capped, and they’re going to be on their own again to deal with the months and years of cleanup and recovery that will follow.”

The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) develops environmental and health sciences research and education at Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

The institute's goal is to position Texas Tech as an internationally recognized force in the integration of environmental impact assessment of toxic chemicals with human health consequences, framed in the context of science-based risk assessment to support sound environmental policy and law.

John Davis is a Sr. Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University

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Nov 24, 2015