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Home News News Fox 8 Oil dispersants could create long term problems

Oil dispersants could create long term problems

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The spill in the Gulf is putting wildlife and marine life at serious risk.

As BP scrambles to cap the leaking well, the company has also been using a chemical dispersant to break up the oil on the surface and at the source of the leak.

The problem is, no one really knows what that means for marine life.

It's been a hard-fought battle with boom to keep as much oil as possible away from precious wildlife.

Which is why BP made the decision to use chemical dispersants at the surface and underwater to break up the oil spilling into the Gulf.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says more than 253,000 gallons of dispersant have been used so far, another 317,000 gallons are available.

Basically, dispersants work the same way dishwashing liquid works on grease.

When applied at the surface, they break up the oil into tiny droplets, before it's consumed by micro-organisms.

But it's never been used 5000 feet below the sea's surface to try to break up oil before it rises.

"This is a real novel new idea that is unique to this one incident to consider injecting dispersents at the sea floor to try to enhance the mitigation, the dispersion at the surface," says Charlie Henry, a scientist with NOAA.

A 2005 study by the National Research Council shows chemical dispersant is less toxic than oil, but environmental officials say we really don't know how it might affect sea life.

Some say it boils down to which is the lesser of two evils.

Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist says, "We don't know a lot about the toxicity of these chemicals. It's being debated. But almost certainly it's going to have major effects down in the water to the marine life. And ultimately this is the same marine life that the birds and animals on the surface are dependent on."

Clarence Luquet is with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and is also waiting for more information.

"It's just a big unknown. We're gathering information, hoping for the best."

The Coast Guard says in the short-term, you might call it a trade-off.

The question of whether dispersants will wreak havoc underwater for the long-haul remains unanswered.

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