Are We Ignoring the Most Important Science About the Gulf Spill?
After the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, a pod of orcas there stopped having babies. The whales have yet to birth a single calf in more than 20 years, and scientists now consider those orcas to be functionally extinct. (See “The Woman Who Loves Orcas,” Spring 2013.) The oil would certainly seem to have something to do with it, but we don’t know for sure. Why? Because nobody did the long-term toxicology studies required to prove it.
The same thing is happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico, where -- over the last three years -- an alarming number of mutated animals have turned up in fishermen’s nets, while nearly 700 dead dolphins have washed ashore. The connection to BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion seems obvious. Certainly common sense would tell you that 200 million gallons of oil (and the 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant used to break it up) must have had an impact on life in the Gulf, from tiny microbes to giant sperm whales.
But without environmental toxicology studies, which are used to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between a pollutant and environmental damage, the evidence is circumstantial, not conclusive. For example, if fish population numbers are going down, that could be blamed on the oil spill -- or it could be due to climate change, or overfishing, or a combination of factors. “Correlations are easily batted aside,” says John Wise, Sr., a professor of toxicology and molecular epidemiology at the University of Southern Maine. That’s why toxicology is needed -- to establish definite causation.
So why aren’t toxicologists making the link between the spill and the Gulf’s dolphin deaths and other strange occurrences? It’s not like they aren’t trying. After the BP rig blew up three years ago (Saturday marked the third anniversary), Robert Joe Griffitt, who studies chemical pollution at the University of Southern Mississippi, knew that the ensuing spill would also be a critical research opportunity. And he was in the perfect position to study the damage to local marine species like fish, crabs, and shrimp. So he spent the next six weeks begging for boat time and searching for research funds.
Three years and mountains of data later, he’s still at it. But the money to support his research -- which never flowed as fast the oil in the first place -- is tenuous, and other toxicologists find themselves in the same position, struggling to complete the necessary long-term studies to track the oil’s impact. Which might actually suit the primary source of Gulf research money -- BP -- just fine. The company’s various settlements and fines are one of the few ways that toxicologists can continue their work, since many other grant sources have been eliminated by federal budget cuts or are restricted by various rules (the National Science Foundation only funds basic science, for instance, and considers toxicology too applied, while the National Institutes of Health only support toxicology studies related to human health -- sorry, fish, birds, crabs, and algae).
BP’s Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative issued 19 grants for about $20 million last year. Only two were for environmental toxicology projects. “I would have expected a quarter of this funding to have gone towards toxicology,” said Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit research organization specializing in whale and pollution studies. “We’ve never released this volume of oil and dispersants into the ocean before. This is all toxicology.”
And yet the studies that could prove -- or disprove -- causation are largely being passed over by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. Last year, BP’s grant program rejected a proposal from Wise to study the spill’s effect on sperm whales -- a top predator in the Gulf -- because the reviewers said whales weren’t important players in the ecosystem.
“This is an opportunity to understand the spill and dispersants, but every year we get away from the event, that opportunity diminishes,” Kerr says. “There seems to be a decided lack of interest in this area.”
To be clear, BP doesn’t directly decide which projects are funded by the research initiative, which will distribute $500 million over 10 years, although the company did help outline the major themes of research funding when the initiative was created, and it appointed 10 of the 20 scientists who sit on the decision-making board. I asked Rita Colwell, who chairs the initiative’s research board, about the difficulty that toxicologists say they’ve had in getting their projects funded. During our conversation, she often failed to distinguish between human toxicology studies and those examining the environmental impact of the spill. But she did acknowledge that toxicologists’ concerns have gotten through to the decision-makers at the initiative, and they’re planning to organize workshops to discuss the need for more toxicology work (although again, she was focused on human health, not the environment). “We’re doing every effort to ensure this is getting covered in the next round,” Colwell said.
When environmental toxicology studies have been done, the results look pretty damning. Preliminary data on a number of species, large and small, has shown that the oil and dispersant have had worrisome consequences for their juvenile development, reproduction, and DNA. At the University of Georgia, marine biologist Samantha Joye has found that oil dispersant seems to harm microbes, some of which play an important part in naturally breaking down oil. And Carys Mitchelmore, an aquatic toxicologist at the University of Maryland, has found that coral exposed to both oil and dispersant fares worse than when oil alone does the damage. Studies are ongoing, but Mitchelmore thinks that the dispersed oil -- and the dispersant itself -- may have lasting effects within the Gulf’s deepwater coral communities.
Environmental toxicology takes time. Often the only way to tell how plants and animals are coping after being exposed to pollution is to collect data over many months, or even years. If these studies don’t proceed over the long term, we will never be able to say for sure which, if any, of the problems suffered by Gulf Coast wildlife after the Deepwater Horizon explosion are a direct result of that event -- just like we don’t know for sure about those infertile orcas after the Exxon Valdez.
“Think about it,” Wise says. “This is the largest manmade marine toxicology crisis in history, yet there are almost no funded oil and dispersant toxicology studies. How does that make any kind of sense?” It doesn’t.