New Study: Dispersants Improve Air Quality For First Responders During Oil Spill

Aug 31, 2017

A new study released this week by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has found that chemical dispersants used during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 improved air quality for first responders.

There’s been debate about the safety of dispersants, which are typically used on the water's surface to help break up oil into smaller bits to prevent oil slicks. As the chemicals break up the oil, it can make the area more toxic in the short term. Human exposure to dispersants can also cause mild skin irritation. 

The Deepwater Horizon spill, the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, was the first time dispersants were used deep underwater to prevent harmful gases from rising to the surface. 

Using a mathematical model of the disaster, the team of eight researchers found that injecting dispersants directly into the oil as it spewed out underwater decreased the overall concentration of all volatile organic chemicals in the atmosphere by about 30 percent. The use of dispersants also significantly reduced the amount of chemicals most harmful to humans. 

Christopher Reddy, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said improving air quality for first responders is important during any disaster. 

"Whenever you can make the folks who are out there, their lives easier, and allow them to be out there longer in a safe manner, then you end up having a bad thing from getting worse," Reddy said. 

Reddy cautioned that the study does not mean it’s better to use dispersants during every oil spill, but the findings could serve as a guide.

"This is just one study, an unprecedented study, that does shed some new light that should be put into the calculus of the people who have to make those decisions, which are often the coast guard, captain or admiral who’s in charge," Reddy said. 

Because the dispersants kept gases underwater, Reddy added that it's possible they could have affected fish and other marine organisms. Reddy said more studies are needed to understand the impact to wildlife.

The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the National Science Foundation.