Mutation – Bearded Clams
Professor sees hope in Gulf after oil spill
Chicagoans looking for fun in the sun historically flock to the Gulf Coast during winter. After the BP oil spill in April that lasted until July, would-be travelers may wonder if it is safe to travel to the area’s beaches and eat the region’s world-renown seafood specialties.
Dr. Assaf Abdelghani, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Tulane University in New Orleans, is an expert in short- and long-term effects of pollution on human and marine animal health. He sees hope in the gulf recovering but admits the area continue to deal with resulting issues.
“What is left today is the heavy stuff like creosol or tar and this is where the problem may lie,” Abdelghani said.
In order to combat the heavy stuff, dispersants like Corexit and others were used in the Gulf.
According to the website of Nalco, the Naperville-based manufacturer of Corexit, the dispersant acts to lower energy needed to mix the oil into the water. That allows the oil to disperse as discrete droplets that are consumed by natural bacteria in the water, clearing the ecosystem.
Abdelghani believes the estimated two million gallons of dispersant used in the gulf warrant further testing and research over the next three to five years before coming to a firm conclusion on long-term effects.
“My main concern is that we might start seeing fish kills as a result of the dispersants,” Abdelghani said, “because they are sticky and might start sticking to the gills where the exchange of oxygen occurs.”
Dispersant use promotes micro-organism consumption of oil, but micro-organisms extract oxygen from the water to metabolize the oil to feed or reproduce, according to Abdelghani.
“Decreased dissolved oxygen in the water could cause hypoxia, or severe lack of oxygen, suffocating fish and other marine animals,” he said.
Micro-organisms that come into contact with the hydrocarbons break them down into smaller-sized particulates and this breaking down will help the environment recover, according to Abdelghani.
Nalco issued a statement in early August in regards to findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Dispersed oil is generally no more toxic than oil, that dispersants appear to increase the efficiency of natural biodegradation by 50 percent, there is no evidence of harm to wildlife from the dispersants used in the Gulf.”
Oil that settles will cause more problems. “We do still have a lot of oil under the surface,” Abdelghani said. “Between 50 and 60 percent of that oil will settle and stay at the bottom of the gulf.”
According to Abdelghani, this could create mutation in marine organisms that live at the bottom, like oysters and clams.
“These are the ones we are concerned about. These organisms will be exposed to the portion of the oil which has settled to the bottom of the Gulf waters,'” said Abdelghani. “This is why they closed so many oyster beds.”
The Food and Drug Administration and Abdelghani agree there is oil in the water, but there are no safety concerns regarding the consumption of the seafood, even if it does contain trace amounts of oil and dispersant.
According to the FDA website on Gulf Seafood Safety, crude oil may taint seafood with flavors and odors, but the public does not need to be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores “at this time.” It says fish and shellfish harvested from reopened or unaffected areas are considered safe to eat.
State and federal agencies continue to open more fishing areas and Abdelghani has been going fishing for the last four or five weeks. His main concern is for the long-term sustainability of the Gulf inhabitants’ distinctive lifestyle.
“The effects this will have on the way of life of many Gulf residents is mostly unknown,” said Abdelghani. “We may not know this impact for some time, but the safety of seafood consumption is no question, it is safe to eat.”
Abdelghani may not fear eating the seafood, but he has concerns over the residents who are dependent on the seafood for not only casual consumption, but their overall economic survival as well.