Dishwashing in the Gulf

Let's start with some slightly, okay, more than slightly depressing numbers: Since the devastating explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig almost three weeks ago, more than 1.7 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and more than 250,000 gallons of chemical dispersant have been sprayed onto that spill in an effort to contain the damage.

Everyone agrees that it's the enormous slick of oil that we should really worry. But in the last week, questions have also been raised about the cleaning chemicals flooding into the Gulf. Although the amount pales, as they say, compared to the spill itself, a quarter of a million gallons of industrial chemicals is at least worth pondering.

Certainly both The New York Times and The Washington Post recently came to that decision. The Post provided a nice description of the way dispersants work, noting that "On a basic level these dispersants work the same way dishwashing liquid works on grease: They break up the oil into tiny droplets by attaching to the oil so it's diluted in the water column." But the article concluded that the environmental effects remained a troubling unknown. The Times came to a similar conclusion, adding that it's difficult to assess impact when the full chemistry of the dispersant is concealed as proprietary information.

But the chemistry isn't entirely as mysterious as such news stories might lead you to think. Nalco, the company producing the dispersant used, has posted material data safety sheets on the industry website Clean Caribbean & Americas. And these do provide some insights what's being added to the beleaguered waters of the Gulf.

I'm going to address only three Nalco listed potential hazards materials here. One is a a solvent, with the rather daunting chemical name of 2-Butoxyethanol, which really needs a more memorable label since we use it so frequently. It's in home cleaning products, from liquid soaps to glass cleaners, in whiteboard erasing compounds, in bowling alley operations as a pin and lane degreaser.

In other words, we wash this one down our drains and into our water systems every day, oil spill or no. Tests have shown that it decomposes rapidly, so that's to the good. But 2-Butoxyethanol is on the hazard list for a reason. It's been linked to anemias and autoimmune diseases and Nalco's product safety data notes that repeated exposure can result in kidney damage.

A second listed is propylene glycol, which incidentally we also use - and even swallow - daily in myriad ways. It functions as a solvent in liquid medications, in food coloring, in bitters used to make cocktails, and in less palatable concoctions, from hand sanitizers to anti-freeze formulas. It's far less acutely poisonous than 2-Butoxyethanol, but it's a more troubling compound when added into places like the Gulf of Mexico because as it breaks down it pulls oxygen out of the water, making it a potential threat to aquatic life.

And finally, the manufacturer lists an "organic sulfonic acid salt" as proprietary, meaning that the precise chemical formula is not available. But, again, that doesn't mean we're entirely clueless. Sulfonic acids are gentled-down derivatives of the famously corrosive sulfuric acid.

As with the others I've mentioned, they also routinely inhabit our lives. In some formulations, they're found in laundry detergents and in fabric brightening agents. In others, in pesticides and fungicides. Toxicity varies according to each preparation which means that we do indeed need more public information to better assess what's going on in the Gulf.

But even without such added facts, there's an obvious conclusion here. Every day we wash our hands, our clothes, our machinery, our bowling alleys using variations on the compounds now spraying into oil-tainted waters. Every day, these materials flush through our water systems, into our rivers, and eventually even our bays, gulfs, seas. So, while we may worry about BP's dishwashing venture in the Gulf, the bigger experiment is our own.

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It's a very common mistake to think that if something sounds similar then it's pretty the same as in the case of sulfonic/sulfuric acids. Actually, the "organic sulfonic acid salt" is a derivative of the bencensulfonic acid which in turn is synthesized from bencene and sulfuric acid. Nevertheless, the acidity of the sulfonic acids is far smaller in terms of pH than the sulfuric. In addition, the sulfonic acids as it is indicated, are used as salts (usually sodium salts). Therefore they are fairly alkaline with a pH around 8. They are not corrosive but mildly irritant to the skin in high concentrations.
Sulfonic acids have the advantage that they are easily degradable by bacteria. Anyways, as you have pointed, these products are not totally innocuous. They decrease the availability of oxygen in the water and we don't know yet how they will affect the marine ecosystem in the way they are now used to control the oil spill. Now, we can only mitigate the harm done by this unfortunate accident.

By Jesús Huacuja (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Welcome! SciBlogs was in need of a good chem/tox blog, and they got the best!

Sulfonic acids are gentled-down derivatives of the famously corrosive sulfuric acid. Nonsense. Ever heard of "Good's buffers"? Most of them are sulfonic acid derivatives.

I'm past the point of needing more analyses to tell us how awful this is. I'm freaking pissed.

It's Monday, and the Oceana website shows significantly more gallons than the 1.7 million you cite.
Oceana; Stop the Drill

Dispersing/cleaning the humongous gushing spill is definitely first in everyone's mind. But there's a more insidious aspect to the problem as shown here:
Since spill, feds have given 27 waivers to oil companies in gulf

"The waivers were granted despite President Barack Obamaâs vow that his administration would launch a ârelentless response effortâ to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the gulf. One of them was dated Friday â the day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was temporarily halting offshore drilling"

The politics du jour demand they get on the tube and spout some populist BS. Then it's back to serving the corporate campaign contribution masters.

There will be more waivers granted. There will be more spills, there will be more "Oh gosh, we're sorry this happened, but we have experts on the scene." Baloney.

Until that changes, we are going to be using an awful lot of dishwashing soap.

And why? So that we can have huge sanitized dead zones where our oceans used to be?

Ask hard questions. Get in their goddamn face. And dig in for some good old fashioned attrition-based political warfare. Until we kill off a lot of political careers, nothing is going to change.

Because that is what it is going to take.

These people do not care what the fallout is as long as they get their money. It is not in their emotional lexicon to give a shit.

And that's everyone's problem now.

In addition to the dispersants described here - which are vastly better than the suffocating oil slick - pretty soon vast amounts of fertilizer will be added to shorelines to encourage bioremediation.

It's a lesser of two evils in this case with adding more chemicals being WAY better than the oil itself. But I don't think we should forget that just because we flush it all the time means that it is okay.

"It's far acutely poisonous than 2-Butoxyethanol, but it's a more troubling compound when added" I guess that should read far less?

By rijkswaanvijand (not verified) on 11 May 2010 #permalink

I agree with Jesus #4, sulfonic acids are not particularly bad actors. Sulfonation is one of the generic processes that the liver uses to metabolize normal and xenobiotic compounds to make them more water soluble so the kidneys can excrete them. One of the reasons that urine can generate foam is because of the surfactant effects of the organic sulfonates.

Triclosan (a cheap broad spectrum antibiotic that is put in just about everything "antimicrobial") inhibits these enzymes in human liver (and in every other kind of liver most likely).

Yet another reason to remove triclosan from everything. It doesn't do anything good, it is just an antimicrobial marketing gimmick.

Welcome to scienceblogs, Deborah!

Very interesting post. I have to admit that I never knew 2-Butoxyethanol was used as a pin degreaser, despite the fact that I spend a (some would say) ridiculous percentage of my time in bowling alleys. I have to suppress my instinct that nothing to do with bowling could ever really be evil.

That's the appeal of using a precipitant, a sugar cane-based form of which some executive was hawking in the news recently. I only wished the stories had mentioned the price. Also actually I wonder precipitation is really so nice. This one was biodegradable, which I guess makes the choice between pollution or poison and eutrophication.

Glad to be here, Michelle. And of course you are so right - one can never go wrong with bowling!

Totally glad to be here and in such good company!

Actually, Good's buffers make a great example of my case. If you read the safety data, the only information given is a sulfonic acid of proprietary formula. If you look at the 12 Good's buffers, they are all different tweaks on a sulfonic acid formula. And they aren't the only sulfonic acid out there - some being more toxic than others. Therefore, it's difficult to judge the material being put in the gulf. As to being derived from sulfuric acid, that's simply a history of chemistry reference to the first generation work with such materials.

Actually, Good's buffers make a great example of my case

No, they don't. "Gentled-down derivatives of the famously corrosive sulfuric acid" - a typical scare tactics intended to imply that sulfonic acid is only "less" corrosive than the super-corrosive sulfuric acid. Was it simply convenient for you to not notice the statement that "they do not act as oxidizing agents and are typically highly stable compounds"? For all we know, it could be HEPES that is being dumped - which would be extremely non-toxic sulfonic acid derivative found, among many other things, in stem cells culture media.

Well, it would be interesting to use a buffering agent to try to break down an oil spill, of course. Expensive and ineffective but, as you point out, not particularly toxic. Still, I admire your wish to defend chemical agents and - if you read my column on Kristof's anti-chemical, you'll see I often do the same.