sponsored links
TEDxOilSpill

Susan Shaw: The oil spill's toxic trade-off

June 28, 2010

Break down the oil slick, keep it off the shores: that's grounds for pumping toxic dispersant into the Gulf, say clean-up overseers. Susan Shaw shows evidence it's sparing some beaches only at devastating cost to the health of the deep sea.

Susan Shaw - Marine toxicologist
Susan Shaw is an internationally recognized marine toxicologist, author and explorer. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I am a marine toxicologist,
00:15
and I've been very, very concerned about the Gulf,
00:17
particularly about the massive applications
00:20
of the toxic dispersants,
00:23
the Corexits.
00:25
I've been working on ocean pollution
00:27
for quite a long time --
00:29
the impacts on marine life and particularly the impacts
00:31
on marine mammals.
00:34
As it turns out, marine mammals
00:36
are at the top of this food chain
00:38
that we're pouring millions of tons
00:40
of toxic substances into
00:43
every year.
00:45
And they are showing the signs of this.
00:47
I'm sorry to have a sad slide like this,
00:50
but not everything is all that happy,
00:52
especially in my work.
00:55
They are loaded
00:59
with toxic chemicals in their body,
01:01
hundreds of compounds,
01:03
all kinds of compounds -- it's staggering.
01:05
And they're dying off rather regularly,
01:07
tens of thousands around the world.
01:09
It's predicted they may go extinct --
01:12
about a third of them --
01:14
within about 30 years.
01:16
So my project is along the Northwest Atlantic.
01:18
It's called Seals as Sentinels.
01:21
We're tracking pollution
01:23
at the top of the food web, in marine mammals and fish.
01:25
It's a region-wide,
01:28
eco-toxicological investigation.
01:30
We're looking at a lot of compounds,
01:33
but recently been quite interested in
01:35
the flame retardants, the brominated flame retardants
01:37
that are in many, many things
01:40
that we use in our everyday life,
01:42
from the cushions in the chairs
01:44
we're all sitting on
01:46
to the plastic casings of our computers,
01:48
our television sets and so on.
01:51
So we are tracking
01:53
how do these things get from
01:55
the products into the ocean,
01:57
which is the final sink for them.
01:59
And there's quite a complicated pathway for that
02:01
because, as these products age,
02:04
they get concentrated in dust,
02:06
and then they also get thrown out, so they go to the landfills.
02:08
They wind up in waste water treatment plants.
02:11
As you all know, we throw out billions
02:14
of computers and TVs every year.
02:16
And those go to e-waste dumps.
02:18
And all that gets into surface waters,
02:20
eventually reaching the ocean, the final sink.
02:22
So, in our study,
02:24
we did find quite high levels, as we expected,
02:26
of these flame retardants in the harbor seals' bodies.
02:29
And we reported this.
02:32
It led to a ban of this neuro-toxic flame retardant
02:34
called Deca in Maine, where I am based,
02:37
and also then a phase-out,
02:40
U.S.-wide, at the end of last year.
02:42
But we said, well, on the bright side,
02:45
our harbor seals at least will not be
02:47
bursting into flame anytime soon.
02:49
So then I got really curious,
02:53
myself, as a toxicologist,
02:55
and I donated some blood to my lab
02:57
and said, "Okay, let's do it."
02:59
Well, we detected 113 different compounds
03:01
in my blood.
03:04
And I must say, if any of you would have this done,
03:06
you'd probably find a similar profile,
03:09
or cocktail, as they call it.
03:11
But I was the recipient
03:13
of a lot of flame retardant material for some reason.
03:16
And just to point out the levels --
03:19
Americans have 10 to 40 times higher
03:22
levels of these compounds in our bodies
03:25
than the Europeans.
03:27
Why? Because we are flame-retarding everything,
03:29
and we have weak regulations
03:32
for toxic chemicals.
03:34
But lo and behold, I'm one of the high-end individuals.
03:36
Lucky me.
03:39
But then I thought,
03:41
well, in case of a fire, I might be the last one to ignite.
03:43
(Laughter)
03:46
So anyway, here's the problem --
03:49
and it is a problem that we're looking at in the Gulf today --
03:51
we're not regulating chemicals in this country properly.
03:54
We're hardly regulating them at all.
03:57
And we're letting industry run the show.
04:00
And Jackie Savitz spoke this morning
04:02
about Big Oil
04:04
and the propaganda
04:06
and how we're all brainwashed
04:08
with their, you know, lies and so forth.
04:11
Well, Big Chemical
04:14
is what we're dealing with here.
04:16
And they're allowed to keep trade secrets,
04:18
so they don't even give the ingredients out.
04:20
Plus they don't give health and safety data,
04:23
so, consequently, they cannot be regulated
04:25
before they go to market.
04:28
So it's a case of innocent until proven guilty.
04:31
The burden of proof is not on the producer.
04:34
So I then was invited to go
04:37
to the Gulf in May.
04:39
I went down there on
04:41
a preliminary investigation
04:43
to look into dispersants
04:45
and how they're going into the water column and so forth.
04:47
And I was told that I was
04:49
the only toxicologist to date
04:51
who was dumb enough to get into the water,
04:54
but I did.
04:56
And we dove in the slick
04:58
without even HazMat gear.
05:00
And I did get sick.
05:03
I got a ferocious sore throat two days later.
05:06
I felt like my throat was on fire.
05:09
But it did pass.
05:12
And what I did see in the water as we went down,
05:14
what really shocked me -- and it's haunted me ever since --
05:17
because I could see the droplets of oil dispersing.
05:20
And as you go down, they're catching all kinds of plankton,
05:23
bumping into,
05:26
you know, little wisps of life
05:28
that are the food for the planktivores,
05:30
the herring kind of fish.
05:33
And you could just see the web of death
05:36
as you go down in the water column.
05:38
Well, you know, we got into this
05:40
in the beginning
05:42
as a trade-off, they say,
05:44
between the wetlands versus the ocean depth.
05:46
And I didn't agree with that
05:49
decision at the time; I still don't.
05:51
The decision was to protect the marshes.
05:53
When the oil gets into the marshes, you can't get it out.
05:56
And as you know, there's been a very weak response,
05:59
up until recently,
06:01
to actually collect the oil.
06:03
It's gotten much more aggressive.
06:05
This is an Exxon slide showing what happens,
06:07
the scenario and the trade-off.
06:10
So this shows oil on the surface.
06:12
You can see it getting up into the mangrove,
06:14
but it is not harming the corals
06:17
or the sea grass, right.
06:20
So here we have the other scenario.
06:22
If you disperse, the sea grass and the corals
06:25
are getting hit pretty hard,
06:27
but you're saving the mangrove.
06:29
So this, to me, is like going to the eye doctor, okay?
06:31
Is it better with one or two?
06:34
(Laughter)
06:37
The problem is that we have
06:39
released so darn much of this stuff,
06:41
we're climbing up to two million gallons
06:43
very quickly.
06:46
And then there's the problem of the plumes.
06:49
What plumes?
06:52
It turns out there are plumes.
06:54
Independent researchers found that.
06:57
And then there's the looming,
06:59
messy problem of human health,
07:02
reported human health effects.
07:04
And actually, one of our federal officials
07:06
said that it was probably heat stress. So ...
07:08
Having been in that water
07:13
just for the short time I was there,
07:15
I can tell you, it is not heat stress.
07:17
There are volumes of volatile
07:19
petroleum fumes coming off that water,
07:21
plus the Corexit,
07:24
which has solvent in it.
07:26
So it is not at all rational.
07:28
So what do we have? The BP show is going on.
07:31
Our officials complained about Corexit,
07:34
which is the most toxic
07:37
line of dispersants.
07:40
But heck, they're still using it,
07:42
and they used the most toxic one, the 9527,
07:44
until they ran out of supplies.
07:47
Now they're on 9500.
07:50
9527 had 2-butoxyethanol in it
07:52
that causes internal bleeding.
07:55
We know that from the Exxon Valdez spill, by the way.
07:58
So what we're doing, we're putting compounds
08:01
with petroleum solvents onto a petroleum spill.
08:04
Does this make sense?
08:07
So this is the way it works.
08:09
And I want to show you this cute little thing that happens here.
08:11
It's a micelle.
08:14
Micelles form around the oil.
08:16
And what happens first
08:19
is the solvents break into the oil,
08:21
the lipid membrane,
08:23
they let the surfactants in there.
08:25
The surfactants -- which are like things
08:27
we use on fast food wrappers --
08:29
they grab around the droplets of oil,
08:31
and they make little, tiny droplets
08:33
with nice, little
08:35
surfactant edges to them.
08:37
The thing to remember about the micelles --
08:39
these little floating
08:42
globules of toxin --
08:44
is they are there to deliver.
08:46
They're like the FedEx guys.
08:48
And if you're a fish,
08:50
and you haven't gotten your glob in the morning,
08:52
you're going to get it in the afternoon,
08:54
because they've got your number.
08:56
So from a toxicology perspective,
08:58
this is really awful
09:01
because Corexit and the dispersed oil
09:03
are much more toxic together
09:06
than either alone.
09:08
And usually the exposure
09:10
is a combined exposure.
09:12
The dispersants -- as I was saying --
09:14
their job is to break down
09:17
the lipid membrane.
09:19
The solvents in them do that very efficiently.
09:21
So they break down
09:24
lipid membranes in our body,
09:26
starting with cells of the skin,
09:28
the cells of organs.
09:30
So it actually hastens
09:32
oil getting into the body
09:34
easily and readily.
09:36
Oil contains hundreds of hydrocarbon compounds
09:38
and other compounds
09:41
that are toxic to every organ in the body.
09:43
And so with the dispersants combined,
09:46
you have this very synergistic
09:48
combined toxicity.
09:50
Corexit also contains petroleum solvents
09:53
and many other toxic compounds.
09:55
And I'm part of a chat group,
09:57
which is a national group
09:59
of toxicologists and chemists
10:02
that are, you know, basically
10:05
turning cartwheels trying to figure out what's in this stuff,
10:07
and what is it doing and what are the interactions
10:10
of these chemicals, most of which we don't know,
10:13
and what are their byproducts,
10:16
which are usually more toxic than the parent compound.
10:18
So we did find that Corexit 9500
10:21
contains heavy metals, arsenic and chromium --
10:23
arsenic at high enough levels
10:26
to have cancer-causing effects.
10:29
So this is what we have to look at,
10:33
these, you know, ridiculous safety data sheets,
10:36
which have nothing on them much.
10:39
And now they were forced to release the ultimate list
10:42
of everything that's in Corexit.
10:45
And guess what,
10:48
tons of stuff is missing.
10:50
Derivatives, derivatives, these are whole big groups
10:52
of many, many compounds, these sorbitans.
10:55
And then you get down to the petroleum distillates,
10:58
which are the solvents,
11:00
hundreds of them.
11:02
They are not identified. And why?
11:04
Trade secrets again.
11:07
BP's running the show,
11:09
and the Nalco company, this is all they have to do.
11:11
So far these ingredients have not been released,
11:14
and toxicologists are actually going nuts
11:17
because we cannot predict with certainty
11:20
what the interactions
11:23
and toxic results are going to be.
11:25
But we do have quite a lot at risk
11:27
down there, as we all know,
11:29
the 33 wildlife refuges,
11:31
so much wildlife
11:34
and fish and diversity.
11:36
So we know from previous spills.
11:38
And then part of this is just
11:40
part of my bad dreams.
11:42
And I appreciate being able
11:44
to vent some of my
11:46
anguish upon you.
11:48
What we do know is that the corals are going to get hit hard.
11:50
And this is a study that was done
11:54
on the Australian coast,
11:56
the coast of Tasmania.
11:58
Corals are, you know, the home to
12:01
about a quarter of all marine species.
12:03
And with the Corexit
12:05
and the oil,
12:08
there's zero percent fertilization.
12:10
With oil alone, there's 98 percent fertilization.
12:13
So they're a very sensitive species
12:16
to this combo.
12:18
Here's another group.
12:20
I could see myself easily in the water column.
12:22
The plankton and the plankton eaters,
12:25
you know, these are the little herring fish
12:27
that go through the water column with their mouths open,
12:29
feeding indiscriminately
12:32
and just lapping up
12:34
this brown pudding of toxic stuff.
12:36
And we do know from other studies
12:40
that this is a highly toxic mixture.
12:42
See the oil and Corexit is causing death
12:44
at a much, much lower dose
12:47
than oil alone.
12:50
That's probably as far as what we do know
12:52
about toxic effects.
12:54
But my bad dreams go like this.
12:56
The piscivorous fish,
12:59
the cobia, grouper, amberjacks, those big fish,
13:01
also the tuna and sharks,
13:04
are going to hit by this.
13:06
And the gills are quite sensitive.
13:08
The respiratory system is very sensitive.
13:10
Think about it with
13:12
the Corexit hitting the membranes,
13:14
and it will clog up the gills,
13:17
and then these animals are going to be
13:20
getting something like what you call
13:22
chemical pneumonia,
13:24
trying to aspirate the compounds.
13:26
It also will cause internal bleeding
13:29
upon ingestion.
13:31
I'm very worried about the air-breathing mammals because I study them,
13:33
but also, the way their going to be exposed
13:36
is every time they come to the surface to take a breath,
13:38
they're going to inhale these volatile fumes.
13:41
And what does happen with that eventually
13:44
is pneumonia sets in
13:46
and liver, kidney, brain damage.
13:49
The Corexit
13:52
is transporting the oil
13:54
into every membrane
13:56
and every system of the body.
13:58
And you're having
14:00
a lot of different unpleasant effects,
14:02
but burns to the eyes and mouth,
14:04
skin ulcers, lesions.
14:07
And I think, personally,
14:09
that we have not begun to see
14:11
the impacts of this spill
14:13
on the wildlife of the Gulf.
14:15
We started hypothesizing:
14:17
what do we know?
14:19
what do with think would be a trophic cascade?
14:21
which means that somebody gets wiped out,
14:23
and then everything above
14:25
that's eating those guys will crash.
14:27
So our thought was --
14:29
this is a simple thinking process, but ...
14:32
obviously the plankton, the planktivores,
14:34
and that's about as far as we got.
14:37
And then it turns out we're not very good at figuring this stuff out.
14:39
This is what the Exxon Valdez scientists thought would happen,
14:42
this trophic cascade
14:45
where you lose the kelp and the herring
14:47
and other fishes and going up.
14:49
They thought that eventually the killer whale
14:51
would be at the top of this cascade.
14:53
And then here's what really happened,
14:55
much more complicated, much more specific.
14:57
Actually the kelp
15:00
and the barnacles that attach to the rock
15:02
were decimated by the combination
15:05
of Corexit and the oil.
15:07
They were replaced by invasive species,
15:11
which had less holding power to the rock.
15:14
Storms came along.
15:17
They ripped out of the rock.
15:19
And this was the entire food web for the sea ducks.
15:21
And as you know, we lost about 300,000 sea ducks
15:24
from the Exxon Valdez spill,
15:27
and they haven't come back.
15:29
So we are launching
15:32
an independent study.
15:34
And by independent, I do not mean alone;
15:36
I mean independent in the sense
15:39
of not tied to
15:41
the kind of crime-scene secrecy
15:44
that's going on in the Gulf now.
15:46
But we are actually going to be assessing toxic impacts,
15:48
but we need lots and lots of partners
15:51
to do this intelligently.
15:53
We have some of the partners lined up.
15:55
And Dave Gallo signed on.
15:57
Sylvia's in here.
15:59
And we hope that some of you will help us.
16:02
My question to you is: why shouldn't we know?
16:05
Don't we have the right to know?
16:07
Surely we have the right to learn
16:09
what loss we are going through in the Gulf.
16:12
And my wish would be --
16:15
for the gulf prize -- would be
16:18
that we have the truth.
16:20
Whatever it is, please let us have the truth.
16:23
And to get there,
16:26
we need to do the assessment.
16:28
So I appreciate being here. Thank you.
16:31
(Applause)
16:33

sponsored links

Susan Shaw - Marine toxicologist
Susan Shaw is an internationally recognized marine toxicologist, author and explorer.

Why you should listen

For two decades, Susan Shaw has investigated the effects of environmental chemicals in marine animals. She is credited as the first scientist to show that flame-retardant chemicals in consumer products have contaminated marine mammals and commercially important fish stocks in the northwest Atlantic Ocean.

An outspoken and influential voice on ocean pollution, Shaw dove in the Gulf oil slick in May and observed first-hand how oil and dispersants are impacting life in the water column. The experience prompted her to call for a collaborative, Gulf-wide effort to track effects as the toxins ripple through the food web. She was instrumental in creating the Consensus Statement opposing further use of dispersants in the Gulf.

Shaw serves on the International Panel on Chemical Pollution, a select group of scientists urging policymakers to improve management of toxic chemicals. She travels throughout the US, Europe and Asia as a speaker on the ocean crisis and chemical pollution.

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.