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Blog/Opinion: How BP avatars show up in your life

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. 


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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 for labor at the Occupational Safety & Health Administration: 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 valve 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.

Unfortunately, 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 though hundreds of parents sued the company for its harmful effects on their children’s brain; eventually EPA fined 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 have 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. 

Privatizing profits and socializing costs

Businesses are adept at passing along the true costs of their pollution onto the rest of us. Parents and the health care system pick up a tab of $54.9 billion a year for four childhood disorders: lead poisoning, cancer, asthma, learning and behavioral disorders. Special ed (half the most-used chemicals harm the immature brain and nervous system) costs us $77.3 billion every year. Care for premature babies, another casualty of toxic harm, adds anther $26 billion to the annual national budget. 


The $20 billion that BP, under pressure from the White House, set aside to compensate people and businesses harmed by the disaster is a drop in the bucket of the final national bill. Right off the bat, BP will halve that outlay by taking a $10 billion tax credit for the costs of its clean-up. This means that taxpayers will indirectly foot part of the $20 billion. (4)


Oil production is among our most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks handed out at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process. For instance, the Deep Water Horizon drilling rig was registered to a company in the Marshall Islands, allowing its owner, Transocean, to avoid taxes.  At the same time, BP saved $225,000 a day by using a tax break to write off the rent for the rig. Capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general, lower than virtually any other industry, and much lower than most of us pay as workers. (5)

There are many other clever ways to avoid the full costs. To clean up the Gulf waste, BP has hired prison labor in Louisiana. These men are hired either at low wages or no wage at all, and BP gets a tax credit of $2,400 for every worker, under legislation passed in the Bush’s administration Welfare to Work program. That tax credit comes out of the taxes the rest of us pay. The workers, almost exclusively black men, are forbidden to talk to the media. (6)

Do the hefty contributions from industry to our elected officials have something to do with the green light that lets them continue their "toxicating" ways and their capacity to get the rest of the nation to pay? Members of the House Congressional Committee on Natural Resources, the committee that deals with the oil industry, receive substantial funding from Haliburton, BP, Dow Chemical, Chevron, Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Shell, to name just a few. (7)  In addition, the oil and natural gas industry has spent $340 million on lobbyists since 2008. (8)

Ignoring the health effects


Many people will be exposed to the chemicals in crude oil and dispersants through skin contact, by breathing in contaminated air or soil and sand granules, and by ingesting contaminated water or food. Harm will depend on the level of exposure and susceptibility. The most susceptible are pregnant women, the elderly and children, whose immature bodies have not yet developed the immune and detoxification defense mechanisms that come with maturity.
Oil and dispersants contain chemicals that rapidly penetrate the skin and move through cell walls. They can damage almost every system of the body; from the respiratory system, to the liver, kidneys, immune system, endocrine system, and on to the brain. They can damage cell structures, including DNA, and alter the function of the cells and the organs. The chemicals can impair normal growth and development through a variety of mechanisms, including endocrine disruption and direct fetal damage. They cause mutations that may lead to cancer and multi-generational birth defects, according to an independent research group, Sciencecorps .

Christie Whitman has just surfaced on various news media averring that three-quarters of the oil has simply disappeared, so we need not worry.

Do you recall that, a few days after 9/11, Ms Whitman, then EPA administrator, assured New Yorkers their air was safe to breathe and presented no health risk? Yet hundreds of clean-up workers, police, and others have since then fallen extremely ill, while the children born to women who were exposed to the fall-out during their pregnancies now suffer from lower IQs, behavioral problems, and the kind of DNA damage that can lead to cancer, according to studies launched right after 9/11 and still going on, by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

In fact, a just-released survey has found that 30 percent of the children who live in areas near the spill are now sick with physical ailments such as skin rashes and breathing problems. They're also anxious, distressed and exhibiting behavioral problems. Their families are experiencing a high level of discord, including suicides. Almost a quarter of residents still fear that they will have to move. (9)

The Institute of Medicine says that what’s needed is a massive effort to track heath effects over time, but right now only a small federal study of the health of people in the Gulf communities is underway. After the massive Exxon Valdez spill, no one ever followed people over time to identify health outcomes.

Science for hire

BP has hired a private company to assess the health of workers engaged in clean-up, which seems a fine example of the fox guarding the chicken coop.

But that’s a very common occurrence. In Toms River, NJ, home to Ciba-Geigy and Union Carbide chemical facilities, an unusually high number of workers and then children in the community fell ill with cancer. Yet scientists hired by the companies never found any evidence of a connection.

BP is now buying up scientists from public universities in all the Gulf states, including the entire marine science department at one Alabama university. The well-paying contracts have a non-disclosure clause that prohibits scientists from publicizing their research, sharing it, or speaking about data for at least three years. The purpose is to aid the company in its defense against lawsuits, including the one the fed government is poised to bring against BP. (10)


Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) recently proposed a broad overhaul of rules for the use of oil dispersants, one piece of legislation that seems irrefutable. It seems obvious that the federal government needs to overhaul its oversight of oil drilling and extracting, and clean up the corruption in the agency (the Minerals Management Service) that was supposed to regulate the industry. 

Even apart from (and in addition to) global warming, the health of our children demands that we switch away from coal, oil, and gas to alternative energy sources. It is madness to spend billions of dollars first subsidizing the production of these fuels, more billions cleaning up the disasters they cause, and billions more to deal with the illnesses they bring about. (Not to mention the billions we spend on overseas wars to protect our sources of oil.)

As individuals and families, we can make a difference by the way we lead our lives – cut back on our gas usage, send a message to manufacturers by avoiding products based on oil such as plastics and synthetic fabrics, avoid petroleum-based pesticides by eating organic foods. Use the resources to make oil-free, green decisions. 
We should also give a strong push to the widespread use of “green chemistry,” which manufactures products out of a non-petroleum and non-toxic base. Green chemistry redesigns the molecules that go into manufacturing chemical products, to replace those that are toxic, and builds the products from plant-based materials such as corn, potatoes or other agricultural products, and even agricultural waste. A good article on how green chemistry can help prevent another Gulf-like catastrophe:
P.S. A warning re-eating fish

The dispersants sink into the water, enter the organisms fish eat, and travel up the food chain. 

The Food and Drug Administration proposes to use a “sensory test” to decide whether fish are dangerous to eat. That means, they intend to smell the fish. But actually the fish can be contaminated without an odor. Right now, some independent scientists are advising that pregnant women and children avoid eating fish until a better test is put in place

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
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
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.

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,



4. “BP to cut U.S. tax bill by $10 billion because of losses in gulf spill,” Jia Lynn Yang, Washington Post, July 27, 2010


5. “Oil industry enjoys abundant tax breaks,” David Kocieniewski, The New York Times, July 03, 2010

6. Abe Louise Young, “BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle,” The Nation, July 21, 2010.

7. Federal Elections Commission

8. Center for Responsive Politics

9. National Center for Disease Preparedness, August 3, 2010.


10. “BP buys up Gulf scientists for legal defense, roiling academic community,” Alabama Register, July 16, 2010.



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How BP avatars show up in your life:  Created on August 11th, 2010.  Last Modified on August 16th, 2010

About Alice Shabecoff

Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of the book Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, Random House. See her website,


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