The sperm whale population in the Gulf of Mexico “may be the most polluted in the world,” according to Iain Kerr, CEO of the non-profit whale research organization, Ocean Alliance. Kerr explains that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and BP’s widespread use of the toxic dispersant Corexit on the spill, which caused the oil to sink and disseminate, is responsible for toxins found in the whales’ bodies.
At a presentation Sunday evening in downtown Pensacola, FL, Kerr, who has been studying toxins in sperm whales around the world since 2000, discussed his team’s findings. Cell samples taken from sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico have higher concentrations of metals such as lead, chromium, and nickel, and elements found in crude oil than any other sperm whale population in the world, Kerr reports.
Kerr stated that as apex predators, sperm whales are a good bioindicator of the Gulf ecosystem as a whole. Toxins absorbed by animals from the bottom of the food chain up would eventually be present in the whales’ bodies.
“[The whales] can tell us about the problem,” Kerr said. “What’s interesting about a food chain – chains only work if they are interconnected. If you break one component of the chain, you’ve got a problem,” the Pensacola News Journal reports.
A report released in April asserts that BP’s use of Corexit caused more damage to human health and the environment than did the spill itself. Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf, a collaborative investigation of the health effects of dispersants, found the same dangers that Marine Toxicologist Riki Ott has been warning of since 1989, after she was involved in the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
According to Kerr, nine orcas died in Prince William Sound, Alaska during the year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. ExxonMobil used Corexit 9580 to hide and disperse oil in the Sound. In the 24 years since that spill, the whales have not produced a single calf.
Because the 2010 BP oil spill was the worst man-made environmental disaster in US history, the company wanted it cleaned up, and fast. Unfortunately the leak was not permanently plugged until five months after the spill began. BP’s strategy was “Out of sight, out of mind.” They utilized a known amount of 1.8 million gallons of the toxic dispersant Corexit, though it is highly unlikely that the true amount of dispersant used will ever be known.
When BP decided that they were going to use the chemical dispersant to hide the massive amounts of spilled oil, rather than allow the oil to remain on the ocean’s surface where it could be collected, their message to the public was that Corexit is “as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid.”
It is a fact that dispersants like Corexit contain solvents such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve things like oil, grease, and rubber, yet BP was allowed to pour these chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico, which is home to vast marine species, not to mention the livelihood and support system for five states along its coast.
While the full effects of BP’s negligence in the Gulf may not be known for years or even decades, the work of Ocean Alliance is an indicator of the devastating impact of the oil spill and BP’s use of dispersant.
“BP knew the dangers of Corexit, but were only concerned with profit and repairing their public image,” commented Mark Proctor, President of the Levin, Papantonio law firm. “They chose to hide and disperse the oil by pouring unknown amounts of toxic chemicals into our Gulf. The effects of their blatant disregard for the well-being of the Gulf ecosystem and the health, safety, and livelihoods of the residents of the five states that depend upon it, may not be fully known for years.”