Dispersants Cause Gulf Fish to Absorb More Toxins and then Make It Harder for the Fish to Get Rid of the Pollutants Once Exposed

Louisiana State University fish toxicologist Kevin Kleinow has found that the dispersants used in the Gulf increase the amount of toxins the fish absorb and then, once exposed, makes it harder for the fish to get rid of the toxins through normal biological processes.

As LSU reported last week:

Kevin Kleinow, DVM, PhD, is a toxicologist who specializes in environmental health issues, especially those related to fish. This means he studies how contaminants in the environment affect fish and how those interactions may affect other organisms, including humans. With the oil spill in the Gulf, Dr. Kleinow has redirected ongoing work on domestic and industrial surfactant input into aquatic environments to dispersant use with the oil spill. Surfactants, major components of dispersants, are being examined as to how they may affect the uptake and fate of petrochemicals in the fish.


Dr. Kleinow postulated that surfactants discharged in the environment—even at low concentrations—would alter the uptake, excretion, retention, and potential toxicity of other chemicals in the environmental food chain.

Subsequent work in his laboratory … showed that indeed this was true.


That’s what happens with the surfactant; it progressively increases the permeability so more and more compound gets into the animal from the higher contaminant concentration in the diet in the intestine, increasing bioavailability. In a similar fashion, but with opposite results, surfactants prevent the transporter-mediated concentration of contaminants into the bile necessary for excretion. Leakage back from the bile lowers the amount of contaminant available for excretion. For both venues the net result is increased compound equivalents in the fish. Surfactants themselves, having low relative toxicity as a group and hence widespread use in shampoos, detergents and the like, could facilitate the toxicity of other chemicals potentially much more hazardous to the fish.


By adding dispersants to the water to break up the oil, surfactants in the dispersants not only increase access of the non-remediated oil to the fish, but also could cause select toxic compounds in the oil to be absorbed more rapidly and make it harder for the fish to excrete those compounds.

So not only do the dispersants used in the Gulf directly pose health risks to people and sealife (see this, this, this, this and this) and cause the oil to sink so that oil-eating bacteria will break it down much more slowly, but they increase harm to the fish from the oil as well.

And dispersants are apparently still being sprayed.

Hat tip Alexander Higgins.

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