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Alice Shabecoff: How BP Avatars Show Up in Your Life

This article was originally published by

Part 1

The BP Gulf oil catastrophe is not the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, contrary to news headlines. The hugeness of the blow-out captures our attention, but the worst pollution actually takes place here in our ordinary lives, in hardly noticed events that add up day after day.

Of course BP gets a lot of credit for making that daily pollution possible. It is the nature of BP’s business, which relies on polluting manufacturing and toxic chemicals, two of the four sources responsible for the toxic assault in our daily lives (the other two sources are heavy metals and nuclear waste).

The very reason for BP’s existence –the petroleum itself –is a problem. Petroleum is a mixture of toxic chemicals, from benzene to naphthalene, which are known causes of cancer, damage to the nervous system and birth defects. Then, from that petroleum, chemistry creates 90 percent of the industrial chemicals, most of them toxic, that make up the products of today’s way of life. So we start out with a toxin and then use it to synthesize other toxic products, from pesticides to shower curtains to cosmetics. Each of these oil-based new products can trigger an illness, especially among children: asthma, birth defects, obesity, autism; or an illness that shows up later in life, such as breast or prostate cancer or Parkinson’s.

Now look at the way BP manufactures oil. These practices simply mirror the way polluters, small and large, cause daily harm. Here are just some of the parallels.

The blow-out happened because of BP’s business model. I quote the New York Times, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the assistant secretary: BP has been found to “ruthlessly cut corners in pursuit of growth and profits,” “routinely proceed with carelessness and a disregard for safety,” and “repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time.” The Gulf blow-out is only the latest in a history of BP manufacturing disasters. Looking into the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas refinery which killed 15 workers and injured many others, an inquiry found the facility was poorly maintained, starved of investment, with 300 safety violations. But in 2009, inspection revealed more than 700 violations at this same facility. Also in 2005, at a huge platform like Deepwater Horizon, a value was installed backwards, causing the rig almost to topple over after a hurricane. Then, a year later, a very large leak sprung in the BP pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

BP’s pursuit of corporate profits and wealth at the expense of public health and safety is the norm in our economy, not the exception. For example, Dow, the huge chemical company, continued (and still does, to this day) to make a potent pesticide even though hundreds of parents sued the company for its harmful effects on their children’s brain; eventually EPA fined the Dow for hiding those lawsuits for over ten years. Our nation’s financial meltdown, too, was the result of greed and lack of government restraint.

Dispersing. not correcting, the evidence

As the ever-growing millions of gallons of oil spread throughout the Gulf, BP tried to disperse the oil by applying a chemical mixture, Corexit, that had never been independently tested. In the face of an uproar over the dispersants’ likely toxicity, EPA eventually demanded new tests. These tests too are flawed: one looked at the dispersants by themselves, rather than mixed with oil, the next only tested for reactions up to 48 to 96 hours’ duration and only for acute effects, whereas most serious reactions show themselves over time, sometimes years later, and show up as chronic rather than acute illness.

Similarly, all the chemical products that daily find their way into our lives have only been tested by their manufacturers. Furthermore, the tests measure the effect only on the equivalent of a 150 pound grown male, and one chemical at a time. They do not test for the way the chemical might harm a fetus or small child nor do they account for the cumulative effect of multiple exposures.

By the way, dispersants do not degrade the oil; they do not fix the problem. Corexit does not correct. Dispersants just spread the oil around and make it hard if not impossible to calculate the real amount of the spill, a figure which will determine the size of the fine imposed on BP. In fact, the National Academy of Science found dispersants can impede the breakdown of oil.

The dispersants are produced by Nalco, a company associated with BP and Dow Chemical, so profits from their use will go back into coffers of those companies.

BP sprayed more than two million gallons of these chemicals into the Gulf during its 86-day oil gusher, the largest use ever and the first time they were dispersed underwater was well as on the surface. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented plumes of dispersed oil throughout thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. This massive usage is “an experiment of epic proportion,” that can damage the Gulf ecosystem while posing unknown health risks to exposed humans. (1)

The waste’s whereabouts

The oil that doesn’t get dispersed is being skimmed from the water’s surface, and mixed together with tar balls, polluted sand and oil-saturated booms. So far 21 million gallons of this sludge has been collected, then put on barges and shipped to the very states damaged by oil coming ashore. In communities across those states, the sludge is then dumped into existing landfills. About sixty percent of the oil-spill waste has found its way into landfills in communities where people of color live. (2)
The landfills must be equipped with two liners and other safety measures. Yet we know from untold examples over dozens of years that landfills, even well-constructed ones, eventually degrade and leak.

In the small town of Dickson, TN, the county landfill, which had accepted wastes from local manufacturing businesses, leaked a brew of chemicals, including benzene, toluene and TCE, a chemical that cleans machinery, into the groundwater. A cluster of children were born with cleft lips and palates, brain damage and cancer among families whose mothers had drunk the polluted water. There are 3,091 active and over 10,000 old landfills in the U.S., many of them in bad shape. (3)

Why isn’t BP required to do something to make the sludge less toxic? Because the industry succeeded in 1988 in getting wastes from oil and gas exploration and production exempt from the clean-up that would otherwise have been mandated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. If these wastes had been subjected to that legislation, it would have tripled or quadrupled their clean-up costs.

To be continued………………..

Sources of Information and Help
ScienceCorps is an informal alliance of scientists and other researchers who provide evaluation, communication, technology and other types of assistance in environmental and occupational health. See their fact sheet on the hazards of the ingredients that are in the Gulf,, and for medical repercussions, see their Clinical Evaluation fact sheet,

Dr, Riki Ott
Is a marine biologist, who studied the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez, and is now investigating the extent and repercussion of the Gulf blow-out.

Wilma Subra, Subra Company
[email protected]
Chemist and warrior who helps communities fight toxic assaults. Winner of a MacArthur “genius award.”

Waterkeeper Alliance

Environmental Defense Fund
This site helps you identify the energy reducing actions you’re willing to make, then aggregates everyone’s actions in equivalent gallons of oil, and displays the figure on the site’s home page.

BP’s counter-attack
If you google any terms relating to the Gulf catastrophe, at the top of the page you will find: Gulf Response,

For an amazing video summarizing the situation:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Except for the cited material, the examples and facts in this article are drawn from the book Alice wrote with her husband Philip, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill. See

1. “Seeking Answers on Oil Spill as Questions Mount,” New York Times, June 25, 2010,

2. Robert Bullard, “BP’s Waste Management Plan Raises Environmental Justice Concerns,” July 29th, 2010,


Alice and Philip Shabecoff’s recent book, Poisoned for Profit, is available in our bookstore.

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