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Toxic Oil Dispersant is ‘Safer Than Baby Shampoo’, Canada-Nova Scotia Regulator Claims

Two Canadian government agencies are claiming that a highly toxic chemical dispersant used in a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 is safer than baby shampoo, after Environment and Climate Change Canada approved an exploratory drilling plan off Nova Scotia put forward by BP—the same company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

In separate conversations with The Energy Mix, officials with Environment Canada and the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) spontaneously laughed when they heard their agencies had made the comparison to the most innocuous of day-to-day household products. Yet both organizations stand by the analogy, The Mix has learned, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is chiming in.

The story traces back to a comment last month on the Energy Mix site, where a subscriber contrasted the Trudeau government’s promise to “make environmental assessment credible again” with the offshore oil and gas approval process in Nova Scotia, where the government has since green-lighted BP’s three-year plan to explore for oil at up to twice the depth of its Deepwater Horizon well. “The proponents are the oil companies, but it is the CNSOPB (the petroleum board) going around to Nova Scotia’s South Shore municipalities shilling for the projects and providing slanted information, such as the erroneous notion that the toxic oil dispersant ‘Corexit’ is as ‘harmless as baby shampoo’,” a subscriber wrote.

Just Like Soap and Shampoo

A CNSOPB handout for the South Shore information sessions claims that “dispersants contain the same ingredients as many common household products such as dishwashing soap and shampoo,” citing testing by Environment and Climate Change Canada. An accompanying chart lists dish soap as moderately toxic to consume, baby shampoo and laundry detergent as slightly toxic, and Corexit 9500 oil spill dispersant as “practically non-toxic”, along with all-purpose cleaner.

CAPP added its own conclusions in a July 2014 brochure, stating that “Corexit 9500, one of the more widely used dispersants, was found in an Environment Canada study to be 27 times less toxic than a common dish soap. Dispersants contain ingredients that are commonly found in skin cream, mouthwash, shampoo, air freshener, and household cleaning products. These ingredients have been approved by the
 U.S. Food and Drug Administration for either human contact or consumption.”

CNSOPB Communications Director Stacy O’Rourke told The Mix the Board circulated its own safety claims in response to public questions.

“In engagement sessions with stakeholders, we were asked questions about what dispersants are, how they work, and discussed concerns around the toxicity level; specifically impacts on fish,” she explained in an email. The comparison was based on a toxicity test standard, lethal concentration 50 (LC50), which measures the concentration of a substance that will kill 50% of a sample species over a given period of time.

“We committed to provide information and results from testing that has been conducted on dispersants so that stakeholders could better understand,” O’Rourke wrote. “The toxicity diagram included in our fact sheet is meant as an illustrative and easy to understand comparison of toxicity test results for Corexit 9500A and common household products.”

O’Rourke cited a January 2014 study published in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment that commissioned two separate labs to “put dispersant toxicity in context”, by testing Corexit’s impact on two separate aquatic species compared to eight common household cleaners. For Americamysis bahia, a shrimp-like crustacean, four of the products were less toxic than Corexit, and four were more so. For Menidia beryllina, a silverside fish, the study concluded that seven of the cleaners were more toxic than Corexit.

‘Polluter Decides’

But by the time Environment and Climate Change Canada approved Corexit as an oil spill dispersant in 2016, the product was already receiving much more mixed reviews.

“Real-world experience in the Gulf of Mexico proved that Corexit can be deadly: scientists who studied the spill found that the substance makes oil up to 52 times more toxic to marine plankton and decreases survival rates for baby corals exposed to the oil-chemical mix,” National Observer reported. “It can also damage the gills of marine life like zebrafish and blue crabs, according to One Green Planet, which linked Corexit to the deaths and injuries of more than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and other marine mammals over six months after the devastating spill.”

At the time, aquatic toxicologist Vince Palace of the International Institute for Sustainable Development explained the science as a trade-off for fossils and governments.

“Over the long term, by increasing the surface area of the oil, you’re also increasing the potential for the oil to be degraded by microbes in the environment,” he told the Observer’s Elizabeth McSheffrey. “But it can actually increase the toxicity of it over the short term.”

So “are we going to have an oil slick that will persist for a longer period of time and be exposed to more biota [organisms], or a more acutely toxic plume by applying the Corexit but for a shorter time?”

But several environmental campaigners and analysts contacted by the Observer and The Tyee described serious conflicts of interest for government regulators—including the National Energy Board as well as the CNSOPB—that are simultaneously responsible for regulating the fossil industry, promoting it, and protecting the public in the event of a spill.

Veteran environmentalist Daniel Green, deputy leader of Quebec’s Green Party, said Corexit “is a much cheaper solution than deploying an arsenal of industrial booms, skimmers, and the personnel to operate them,” the Observer reported. “And in dispersing the oil rather than collecting it, the chemical makes the problem disappear more quickly—visually, at least.”

“It’s polluter decides,” Green told McSheffrey. “And oil companies—the first the thing they think about when they see oil on the water is how to minimize costs. This is why oil companies immediately stand up and say, ‘It’s our spill we’ll take care of it.’ Because they control the cost by doing that.”

“It is sham,” agreed John Davis, director of Nova Scotia’s Clean Ocean Action Committee, a consortium of fishers and fish plant operators. “It doesn’t do anything to clean up an oil spill. It allows the toxicity in the oil to become more biologically available. The last thing you want is for oil to accumulate in the gills of a lobster.”

Fossils Claim Environmental Benefit

In a 2013 submission to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, CAPP claimed Corexit would deliver a “net benefit to the environment” in the event of a major oil spill. “Much of the industry’s wording in the report matches the language in the new legislation approving Corexit,” The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk noted.

A year later, Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists dismissed the CAPP report as incomplete, unscientific, and inaccurate.

“Many of the assumptions within the document have been challenged as invalid or untrue and should be revisited, corrected, and reanalyzed to determine if they impact on the conclusions regarding the net environmental benefits of dispersant use,” they concluded.

“The main argument of the [CAPP] study is that the dispersant will break down oil molecules and facilitate biodegradation,” DFO noted. “However, it does not address the removal of oil from the water and associated mortality of marine organisms exposed to it.”

Ottawa-based oil spill technology specialist Darryl McMahon wrote to the government at the time, citing new studies which “documented that Corexit didn’t work well in cold waters or with heavy oils and actually damaged microbes that break down oil,” Nikiforuk added.

“Use of Corexit EC 9500A will not have a net benefit for the environment, and will almost certainly not remove the spilled oil from the environment,” McMahon said. “It will just make the oil harder to see by media cameras.”

Months after the dispersant was approved, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc was still concerned that the chemical’s U.S. manufacturer, Nalco, had refused to provide samples of a related product, Corexit 9580, for analysis by government scientists.

“We obviously have a huge concern about a potential corporate interest that appears to not want to have robust, thoughtful, independent scientific analysis of their product,” he said in Halifax.

“LeBlanc would not speculate on whether Ottawa would consider delisting Corexit if samples are not forthcoming,” CBC reported at the time. “He did suggest cooperating with scientific authorities is one of the best ways to ensure a company’s product remains available.” Nalco Director of Global Communications Roman Blahoski said samples had already been provided to Environment Canada, and told CBC the company had encouraged DFO to “connect with their contacts” there.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Toxic Oil Dispersant is ‘Safer Than Baby Shampoo’, Canada-Nova Scotia Regulator Claims"

#1 Comment By John Davis On April 30, 2018 @ 11:10 AM

John Davis, Director
Clean Ocean Action Committee (COAC)

Hello All,
Below is a recent email chain between COAC and Stacy O’Rourke, Director of Communications for the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board. It is self explanatory.
Work every day to protect our environment, there is no “Planet B”
Best Regards

Hello Stacy,

I have been exceedingly busy and apologize for the long delay in my response to your last email. I hope in the interim that you have seen the C-PONS rebuttal to the fact sheets that the “Experts” for whom you work utilize in their discussions with original stakeholders on the Scotian Shelf and Georges Bank and with the impacted communities that are fully dependant on a clean ocean and the health of the renewable resources which it provides.
I realize that you are new to your job and that you are not fully versed in the science of dispersants and their impacts. This is understandable, but you have to realize that both CEAA and CNSOPB are being willfully blind to the point of dishonesty in the way they assess and present the toxic impact of dispersant use.
Stacy, there is no application, anywhere in the world, where dispersants are sprayed or injected into the environment on their own, without spilled oil being present. All of the “research” that you have provided to me and all of the “research” used to justify the points in the CNSOPB handouts speaks only to tests done on dispersants alone, not “dispersant laced oil in an aqueous environment” which is the subject of all the relevant research that has been done on the subject and which is the issue for everyone who is truly concerned with the impact on aquatic lifeforms.
So when you say in your email that the handout was composed to explain “how they (dispersants) work and discussed concerns around the toxicity level; specifically impacts on fish” you are misinforming me because the handout is very clearly misinforming anyone who reads it.
The toxic impact of dispersants is NOT based on the products specific ingredients and your “Experts” know this fact. Dispersants act as an emulsifier and as an emulsifier they break down the oil and act as a “Vector” a delivery system for the highly toxic PAH’s in the oil making the toxic impact of a dispersant laced oil spill much greater than the toxic impact of spilled oil on its own. To create a “Fact Sheet” on dispersants that ignores this well known scientific fact is to willfully misinform the general public, nothing less.
There is a myriad of scientific papers that will confirm these points. Even scientists that fully support dispersant use do not deny this reality. You could find this information on your own if you take the time but for the purposes of this discussion, forget about all that science. Pay no attention to it, just look at pages 161 and 162 of the very conservative, Royal Society of Canada, Expert Panel Report, Titled:
Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association
and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

These pages state:
Research is needed to determine whether dispersants and chemically-dispersed oil are endocrine disruptors in sexually-maturing fish

Research is needed to assess the toxicity of dispersed oil to deepwater corals, ground fish and invertebrate species that have high economic importance (e.g., lobster, crab, scallops)

Research is needed to model the distribution of deepwater plumes of dispersed oil in relation to areas of known fisheries productivity, such as the fishing banks of Canada’s east coast… (Stacy, please note that real scientists, when assessing the impacts of dispersants study “Dispersant Laced Oil” not dispersant alone)

Reading these quote might give you a better understanding of our level of concern. The “fishing banks of Canada’s East Coast” are our fishing grounds. They are the economic engine which supports the communities where I and the other members of the “Clean Ocean Action Committee” live and work. We have grave concerns, they are fully justified and they are exacerbated by seeing the misinformation that your “Experts” so freely hand out.
We contacted Dr. Peter Hodson, one of the authors of this report, and asked what specific research needed to be accomplished. ( I can send you the list if you are interested) None of this research has even been initiated to say nothing of being completed and I don’t hear any of your experts demanding that it be accomplished.
What your “Experts” should be doing is demanding that the oil industry actually develop the capacity to cleanup and remove from our oceans the oil that they carelessly spill. Instead, your “Experts” want to allow our fishing grounds to be used as a “Lab Rat” for the oil industry to test the various impacts their dispersant products.

Stacy, If the people at CNSOPB are asking you to be the public face of their organization they have a responsibility to you, as they do to the community at large, to provide truthful and complete information to disseminate. Right now they have you moving into the realm of “Lord Haw Haw” and “Tokyo Rose.” You could be demanding more of them.

Best Regards

From: Stacy ORourke
Sent: April 16, 2018 8:18 PM
To: ‘John Davis’
Subject: RE: CNSOPB Info sheet

Hi John,

To follow up on your questions regarding our dispersants fact sheet and the illustrative diagram within it that compares the toxicity level of Corexit 9500A to common household products:

In engagement sessions with stakeholders, we were asked questions about what dispersants are, how they work and discussed concerns around the toxicity level; specifically impacts on fish. We committed to provide information and results from testing that has been conducted on dispersants so that stakeholders could better understand. The toxicity diagram included in our fact sheet is meant as an illustrative and easy to understand comparison of toxicity test results for Corexit 9500A and common household products.

Dispersant toxicity testing
We reached out to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to obtain results from testing that they have conducted on the toxicity level of Corexit 9500A as well as to source additional data for testing that has been conducted by others.
• ECCC tested Corexit 9500A in 1994, 2004, and 2014. The results of the ECCC research determined that Corexit 9500A is practically non-toxic.
• In 2016, ECCC approved the use of Corexit 9500A in Canada through regulation. In making the decision, they considered:
o The assessment of net environmental benefit must consider the risks posed by the spill to the environment as a whole for each of the available response options, including the risks of environmental harm should dispersants not be used. While the use of a dispersant may increase the extent of harm due to a spill to the aquatic environment, this is done to mitigate harm elsewhere and minimize the damage overall. This approach is suitable for the protection of all ecosystems.
o They determined that the chemical ingredients found in Corexit EC9500A are additives commonly found in foods and household products that have not been identified as posing an elevated risk to the environment. The influence of the dispersant on the biodegradation of oil has not been established definitively; however, it is important to note that the core motivation for using dispersants is not to enhance oil degradation. The primary objective of treatment with dispersants is to shift the distribution of an oil spill from the water surface down into the water column to divert the oil from impacting more environmentally sensitive habitat, and allow dilution to reduce the impact to aquatic species exposed to the oil. A net environmental benefit may be determined for dispersant use regardless of a delay in oil degradation.
 For more information: http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2016/2016-06-15/html/sor-dors108-eng.html
o ECCC also pointed the CNSOPB to testing done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development (U.S. EPA) on a number of dispersants including Corexit 9500A in 2010. See Table 2 from the U.S. EPA dispersant testing paper that is attached. This testing concluded that Corexit 9500A is practically non-toxic.

Common household products toxicity testing
With respect to testing the toxicity level of common household products, ECCC has conducted some testing (Testing results can be found here: http://www.etc-cte.ec.gc.ca/databases/SpillTox/Default.aspx), and ECCC also pointed CNSOPB to a paper titled Comparison of the Acute Toxicity of Corexit 9500 and Household Cleaning Products (Jack Q. Word, James R. Clark & Lucinda S. Word (2015), Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal, 21:3, 707-725, DOI: 10.1080/10807039.2014.920227). The comparison is shown in Table 4 – see attached. In this testing, Corexit 9500A is on the high end of practically non-toxic.

Determining toxicity levels
When determining the toxicity level, scientists look at the lethal concentration 50 (LC50). LC50 is the concentration of a chemical that will kill 50 percent of the sample population under scrutiny over a specified period of time (e.g. 96 hrs). LC50 is measured in micrograms (or milligrams) of the material per liter, or parts per million (ppm), of air or water. The Lower the amount, the more toxic the material.

Table: Examples provided for illustration of toxicity of Corexit 9500 and various household cleaning products, as drawn from the data identified above:

Item LC 50 (ppm*) – 96h Test Organism Source
Corexit 9500A 354 Fish. Oncorhynchus mykiss (Rainbow trout) 1
Lestoil 51 Fish, Oncorhynchus mykiss (Rainbow trout) 1
Mr. Clean 30 Fish, Oncorhynchus mykiss (Rainbow trout) 1
Palmolive 13 Fish, Salmo gairdneri (Rainbow trout) 1
Simple Green 205 Fish, Oncorhynchus mykiss (Rainbow trout) 1
Sunlight 13 Fish Salmo gairdneri (Rainbow trout) 1
CitriKleen 1850 18 Fish, Salmo gairdneri
(Rainbow trout) 1
Corexit 9500 A 42.1 – 105 Fish, Menidia beryllina (Silverside) 2
Dawn Dish Soap 8.9 – 8.3 Fish, Menidia beryllina
(Silverside) 2
Palmolive Dish Soap 7.1 – 5.4 Fish, Menidia beryllina
(Silverside) 2
Johnson’s Baby Shampoo 38.8 – 42.0 Fish, Menidia beryllina
(Silverside) 2
Tide Laundry Detergent 4.0 – 11.8 Fish, Menidia beryllina
(Silverside) 2
Greenworks All Purpose Cleaner 386-591 Fish, Menidia beryllina
(Silverside) 2
Corexit 9500A 130 Fish, Menidia (Silverside) 3
* Note: 1 ppm = 1 mg/l
Source 1. Environment Canada and Climate Change. Spill toxicity database. http://www.etc-cte.ec.gc.ca/databases/SpillTox/Default.aspx
Source 2. Jack Q. Word, James R. Clark & Lucinda S. Word (2015) Comparison of the Acute Toxicity of Corexit 9500 and Household Cleaning Products, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal, 21:3, 707-725, DOI: 10.1080/10807039.2014.920227
Source 3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development, Comparative Toxicity of Eight Oil Dispersant Products on Two Gulf of Mexico Aquatic Test Species, June 30, 2010

CNSOPB Dispersant fact sheet
The diagram in CNSOPB’s dispersant fact sheet illustrates the toxicity level of Corexit 9500A (high end of practically non-toxic and bordering on slightly toxic) in comparison to the toxicity level of common household products based on the testing data above.

In an effort to be open and transparent, we will update our dispersant fact sheet to provide an additional explanation as to how this illustrative diagram was derived.

Should you have any questions, please contact me.

Stacy O’Rourke
Director, Communications
Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board
1791 Barrington Street
8th Floor TD Centre
Halifax, NS B3J 3K9

Cell (902) 410.6402
Reception (902) 422-5588
Fax (902) 422-1799
Twitter @CNSOPB


#2 Comment By Turcotte Jean-Pierre On May 1, 2018 @ 12:19 PM

Dispersant is adding insult to injury…chemicals on top of more chemicals into the water. What effn fools we are to buy into that solution. I’ll believe the analogy when the CEO of BP demonstrates washing his hair with it….and retains said hair for another year.

#3 Comment By Mitchell Beer On May 2, 2018 @ 12:06 AM

Thanks, Jean-Pierre. What I wondered, actually, was how Nova Scotia Child Protection Services would react if they heard of a family that had run out of baby shampoo, found none at the store, and decided to get some Corexit instead to wash their child’s hair. It shouldn’t matter, right? When I put that to our contact at the Offshore Petroleum Board, I think she thought I was just being rhetorical. Too bad. I have to admit, I never called Child Services.