Gulf Spill Solution, Or New Hazard?

By David Funkhouser — June 8, 2010

A Connecticut company that makes a line of what it labels “green” products for auto and marine use says it has just the thing for cleaning up the Gulf oil spill: A nanotech-based, biodegradable oil dispersant.

But a number of scientists and environmental groups are warning that the firm’s marine oil dispersant relies on nanoparticles in an untested formulation that could cause more harm than good.

Green Earth Technologies’ oil dispersant uses a detergent based on plant-based oils and other unspecified compounds.

Stamford-based Green Earth Technologies defends its products as harmless, and says a protest letter sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by environmental groups has unfairly characterized the company’s dispersant. The EPA, which has been flooded by suggestions for using various products, has basically told the company to get in line along with other companies proposing Gulf solutions.

“This company may be right on, we don’t know that,” said Penny Vlahos, assistant professor of marine science and chemistry at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton. “It’s good someone is asking questions, and it’s good they have to defend themselves.”

Millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the sea in the seven weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, uncorking a well a mile below the surface. Efforts to fight the spill have included spreading more than a million gallons of oil dispersant.

Vlahos and two UConn colleagues are just back from a one-day conference in Baton Rouge at which 200 scientists in ocean and coastal research consulted with federal officials engaged in the oil cleanup. Vlahos described the Gulf crisis as “a bit of a feeding frenzy” for companies trying to promote their products and techniques for environmental cleanup.

BP has received more than 20,000 ideas on how to stop the flow of oil and contain the spill, according to the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which represents BP and the oil rig’s owner, Transocean, and numerous federal agencies involved in the cleanup. The suggestions are funneled through a team of specialists who try to sift out viable suggestions.

The EPA also has been seeking “innovative and environmentally safe technology solutions” through a website. The agency has a list of approved oil dispersants; Green Earth Technologies’ G-Marine Fuel Spill Clean-UP is not on it.

The EPA declined to comment on a specific product being considered for approval. Green Earth Technologies did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Green Earth Technologies’ dispersant uses plant-based oils and other unspecified compounds to create a detergent. The resulting solution creates soap particles of from 2 to 4 nanometers that bond with hydrocarbon molecules in the oil to break it down, allowing the oil to be dispersed in the water.

The company says the tiny size of its soap particles makes its formula more effective than other dispersants.

But that tiny size is what has scientists worried. Nanoparticles can be small enough to get into individual cells and disrupt an organisms’ basic biological mechanisms.

“A lot of people are saying that … regardless of the ingredient, [nanoparticles] can be toxic,” said UConn chemistry professor Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos, who is associate director of the school’s Institute of Materials Science. “If things are small enough, they can go into the receptor of a protein and might up-regulate or down-regulate certain biological functions.”

In a letter to the EPA, several environmental groups urged the agency to reject the use of Green Earth Technologies’ dispersant and other products utilizing nanoparticles. (The letter was first reported on here by AOL’s Andrew Schneider.) The letter cites studies that have shown toxic effects of some nanomaterials on humans, other mammals and aquatic life. They also warn of the unknown long-term effects of using the chemicals on such a large scale.

Click here to read the letter.

In a response posted on the company’s website, Chairman and CEO Jeff Marshall said the G-Marine product “has shown absolutely no adverse effect on humans or animals. All of our Marine products are manufactured from ingredients listed on the EPA clean ingredients list.” He added the G-Marine dispersant “has a zero OSHA hazard rating.”

He said the product biodegrades into “harmless elements in 10 days.”

Click here to read Marshall’s letter.

Ingredients listed on the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet, prepared by the company for OSHA, include coconut, palm and corn oils, and also several unspecified compounds such as “APG 325n” and “Glucopon 215 UP.” While the ingredients appear to have been tested for direct exposure to humans, the data sheet does not address what sort of environmental impact testing may have been performed. The company website says the dispersant has the highest biodegradable rating offered by ASTM, an independent product standards rating agency.

“They have disclosed nothing,” said Papadimitrakapolous, who reviewed the company CEO’s web posting. “How can we make an assessment of nanotechnology if they don’t disclose anything?”

He said the Gulf may be better off if we simply let the oil coagulate and dry, and then gather it up. Breaking it into smaller bits means much of it could wind up on the sea floor, where it could be ingested by benthic animals and have enormous long-term consequences.

“We know if we have temporary exposure to surfactants we have no problem,” Papadimitrakapolous said. “But in the Gulf, we’re conducting a long-term experiment.”

Green Earth Technologies also markets a motor oil made from animal fat and several other performance and cleaning products for auto and marine use “that utilize the power of nanotechnology to deliver environmentally friendly products.” The products are available at many general auto supply and hardware stores, and online.

(This story appeared originally on June 8, 2010, on the New Haven Independent web site.)

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