Oil spill effects continue

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 16, 2010

The MSU Extension Service has a broad range of areas that we offer expertise in, and food safety and environmental quality are two areas that have recently gained added attention with the current crisis in the Gulf. Today, I would like to address a few questions about the British Petroleum-Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I am certainly no expert in this area, but have reviewed some reports from several of our university experts and here is some of what I learned.

Q: What is crude oil and why is it dangerous?

A: Crude oil is a volatile, syrupy-type mixture of organic compounds containing aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons. Some crude oils are more viscous (lighter) than others. Lighter crudes evaporate more rapidly and leave less tarry residues after spills. Heavier crude leave more long term residues and generally create greater problems. Both are currently believed to be leaking.

Crude oil can also can contain some poisonous chemicals like benzene, toluene and other light hydrocarbons, some of which are known to produce cancer in humans.

Crude oil is more resistant to natural cleansing action because some of its components are insoluble in water. Therefore beaches, deep and shallow water sediments, marsh grasses, underwater vegetation, all types of migratory birds, turtles, fish, marine mammals and reptiles, oyster beds, crabs, lobster, and a whole host of other invertebrates and other animal life that comes in contact with the spilled crude oil can be adversely affected.

Q: How long can the oil spill have an effect on the environment?

A: In the short term much of the affected ecosystem will suffer the smothering effect, which will affect the respiration of both plants and animals. Many of the lighter oils can be dispersed through means of wave action and other natural ways. But the exact amount of light and heavy crude oil leaking is not yet known and no one can answer this now.

The long term effect is more complicated. There are several variables that affect the long term chronic effects. The heavier hydrocarbons are more persistent; staying on the water’s surface and “washing up” on beaches coating everything in its path.

The greatest issue is what type of crude oil is present and how much will remain in the environment. Many conditions and factors, including the physical and chemical properties of the particular crude oil, the season, currents and wave action, turbidity will determine the chronic fate of the environment in the long term. So the long term effect will likely be years but how many, no one knows.

Q: Is seafood still safe to eat?

A: Without a doubt this has already hurt the seafood industry in multiple ways. Aside from the acute and chronic effects on plants and animals, there are indirect effects, such as contamination of food supplies in the food web and possibly future contamination to our human food supply.

However, you should feel safe eating all seafood, at this time. No seafood in the Gulf is being harvested from areas where oil is present and no seafood has yet to be recalled or tested positive for hazardous chemicals. So continue to enjoy your seafood offered at local restaurants.

David Carter is the director of the Adams County Extension Service. He can be reached at 601-445-8201.