Friday, December 10, 2010

Texas Tech Researcher to Appear on Canadian Deepwater Horizon Documentary

A Texas Tech University researcher discussed the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster for “BLOWOUT: IS CANADA NEXT?”, a new documentary by Up Front Inc. that aired nationwide Dec. 9 on Canada’s CBC Television.

Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH), was interviewed by the team this summer. Filming off the coast of Louisiana, he discussed the toxic effects of oil and dispersants on birds, reptiles, shrimp, fish and other wildlife.

“The unprecedented oil spill in U.S. waters from the Deepwater Horizon event, along with the heavy use of dispersants, has created short-term impacts to the environment and human health,” Kendall said. “Now we are investigating the long-term or more chronic effects this oil will have on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem. It is still an unfolding ecotoxicological event, and many species of fish and wildlife could still be at risk.”

During his career, Kendall was a part of the assessment for the Exxon Valdez as well as other oil spills and contamination events. He also served as chief editor of “Wildlife Toxicology: Emerging Containment and Biodiversity Issues,” published by CRC Press.

The book is the first reference to address environmental threats to wildlife in a single volume and recommend proven mitigation techniques to protect and sustain Earth’s wildlife populations. Within a month of its release May 10, the book was labeled an international bestseller by the book’s publishers.

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, ultimately unleashing 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The event caused extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitat, as well as to the Gulf's fishing and tourism industries.

In May 2010, Chevron began drilling Canada’s deepest well off the coast of Newfoundland. This begs the question: Could an oil spill of the same magnitude happen in Canada?

The documentary tracked the aftermath of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and transposed the oil spill to Canada’s Grand Banks. By documenting the latest scientific findings in the Gulf, the piece built a picture of what an offshore drilling disaster would look like on Canada’s East Coast.

More video clips from the documentary will follow.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Texas Tech Researcher: Lessons Learned with Deepwater Horizon, More Research Needed for Gulf Oil Impacts

Though six months have passed since news first broke that oil was pouring into the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, a Texas Tech University environmental toxicologist said many lessons have been learned and more research still is needed.

Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech, said that though the media has ceased coverage of the oil spill since the federal government named the well “effectively dead” on Sept. 19, the story of the larger impacts is far from over.

“We’ve learned that we were not prepared for a deep-water release of oil of this magnitude,” he said. “We also learned we weren’t prepared for an oil spill in terms of the technology required to engage it. We know now that we need better booms and more information on the dispersants, as well as development of more ‘green’ dispersants than the ones available.”

Following the April 20 explosion, approximately 200 million gallons of crude would pour into the gulf, creating the largest accidental release of crude in the history of the petroleum industry.

Ecologically, the short-term effects on wildlife seem better than originally projected, he said. Hundreds of miles of beaches were oiled. Thousands of birds and hundreds of endangered or threatened sea turtles have died as a result of the oiling, but the damage could have been worse.

However, the full picture as to the oil’s impact on organisms below the surface may never be counted. Rather, the underwater impacts may become more apparent if populations dwindle because larval young were killed and aren’t there to reproduce in years to come.

“We are yet to learn what the impact of using dispersants in deep water is, because much of the oil is in the sub-surface or on the bottom,” he said. “The long-term effects may take years if not a decade to reveal. For example, the impact of this year’s age-class of endangered sea turtles may only become evident a decade from now when mature female turtles will wind up on the Texas beaches to lay their eggs. Another example would be with sperm whales. Damage done from this year’s calf recruitment may not be evident for years to come because it’s very hard to monitor them in deep water.”

Though NOAA and Texas Tech studies have not found oil residues in seafood samples, the industry continues to suffer from bad perceptions, he said. Also, some seafood could have long-term effects where popular species have population declines.

“The Gulf of Mexico is one of major spawning grounds in the world for bluefin tuna. We also know that larvae from blue fin tuna eggs are much more sensitive to toxic components of oil. This species could move to threatened or endangered status if there’s a population drop in the near future. We will have to monitor this closely, but the long-term impacts on sentinel species are ominous.”

Kendall continued to call for more independent academic research into the environmental effects of the oil spill.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Texas Tech Researchers Find No Evidence of Petroleum Hydrocarbons in ‘Good Morning America’ Samples

After receiving a shipment of Louisiana seafood samples collected by a reporter with “Good Morning America,” researchers at Texas Tech University found no evidence of petroleum hydrocarbons.

Though these samples were clean, the sample size was small and more research is necessary before the full picture can be seen, said Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH).

“Our detection limits would have detected selected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) had they been there, even at very low levels,” Kendall said. “Everyone should realize the sample size was extremely small and that these data represent just a snapshot of time and space. We believe sampling and analyses should continue, and that independent science-based research needs to continue.”

Scientists are concerned about PAHs because some of them are known carcinogens.

Producers with the morning news program asked TIEHH researchers to test the seafood samples prior to the federal government’s opening of waters to fishing on Monday. Reporter Matt Gutman sent the samples from Bastian Bay, La, where he is reporting.

“We collected the samples Monday in Bastian Bay,” Gutman said. “It is an area where we've found oil on the sediment. We filmed it all, including the bagging. The fishermen used a net, but found no evidence of oil directly on any of the samples.”

Gutman’s samples included shrimp, of which nine were tested from three separate locations, four oysters, two bait fish, a flounder and a speckled trout. They were shipped on ice overnight to the institute on Tuesday and Wednesday, where they were received in excellent condition and smelled fresh before processing.

Once tissues were extracted, scientists analyzed them using gas chromatography with mass spectrometry, said Todd Anderson, an environmental chemist at the institute. The process is used to determine substances within a specific test sample, and is widely regarded as the gold standard for forensic substance identification.

“We were particularly interested in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which can be carcinogenic,” Anderson said. “The analytical results revealed that the PAHs we analyzed for were below detection limits of our instrumentation, and far below any levels of concern as regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Trace Analysis Inc. of Lubbock, Texas, a certified laboratory in Texas and Louisiana, assisted with the analysis.

This project took five days to complete and was done without support from BP or the United States Federal Government.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Texas Tech Researchers Test New Material Designed to Battle Gulf Oil Mats

The occasional sounds of sea birds filled the air and brown pelicans flew past the airboat moving along the oil-soaked edges of salt marshes near Plaquemines Parish, La.

Steve Presley, a zoonotic disease researcher with The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech University, surveyed the booms pushed far into the grasses only days after Hurricane Alex had blown through. He carried with him a new prototype material being developed by TIEHH to more effectively pick up the pasty “chocolate mousse” crude oil material.

Thanks to the help of Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, Presley was able to obtain clearance into areas hit hardest by the oil spill to test the prototype material.

“We were part of 'Team Nungesser' for a few days,” Presley said. “It’s a war going on trying to stop that oil as it moves in to the salt marshes. The salt grass mats are the environmentally rich areas for fishing and seafood, oyster beds, shrimp – everything. In the delta, there are 35 miles from the mainland to open water that’s grassland marshes. They’re trying to stop the oil as it penetrates deeper and deeper into that marsh.”

Presley hoped the new product could be useful to workers to aid in cleanup or the prevention of more oil washing into the marshes. He and nonwoven fabric researcher, Seshadri Ramkumar, are trying to create an effective nonwoven material similar to Fibertect but specifically designed to stop oil from eating away more marsh.

As the airboat moved along, Presley watched an amazing flotilla of workers trying to fight the oil. Small boats carried people to larger boats to pick up supplies and booms.

Donning a non-breathable Tyvek protective suit and an organic vapor mask, Presley said he got a first-hand experience of what cleanup workers endure every day. On a 100-degree day with 99.9 percent humidity looming, he said he understood exactly why the crew can only work for 20 minutes before taking a 40-minute break.

“The oil is viscous, adheres to everything and forms an almost waxy layer on anything it touches,” he said. “It stops the penetration or absorption into materials that normally absorb crude oil. The booms – the oil doesn’t penetrate. It just coats them. The product we were testing showed significant promise as far as a means of impeding movement of oil. We’re in the process of redesigning and reevaluating what characteristics work best and which ones we need to improve to make it more effective.”

Keeping the oil at bay has been a problem. Once booms are coated, oil mats can find their way over or under booms as high tide pushes oil into the grass. Low tide sucks water out of the marsh but re-coats the grass with oil. Once coated, the sun cooks the oil and kills the grass, leaving behind an area looking much like a slowly burning West Texas prairie fire.

Ramkumar said the new product is made from 100 percent raw cotton designed to target oil alone, where as Fibertect has the capability of both oil and vapors. The specially designed material will be made into absorbent pads and sorbent booms, which are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the polypropylene booms being used now.

“Texas Tech’s Nonwovens and Advance Materials Laboratory has perfected the needlepunch nonwoven machine to process raw cotton straight from a bale produced in West Texas to develop lightweight and heavyweight cotton nonwovens,” Ramkumar said. “We use cotton that has barks and other vegetable matter as it is normally present in small quantity in the bale so that the vegetable matter also will help in soaking up oil. Our extensive research with different materials, such as raw cotton, commercially available polypropylene oil absorbents, human hair and wool has shown that cotton comes to be the best candidate for absorbing at least two to three times that of commercial polypropylene oil pads.”

The problem that the booms currently being used and other materials are facing is that the oil coming ashore is a pasty, solidified material that doesn’t absorb the same way raw crude oil might. Trapping and keeping the oil has stymied standard cleanup methods.

“The challenge is to get high oil absorbency rates in the actual scenario in the gulf due to the nature of the oil,” he said. “As the oil is semi-solid, almost all of the absorbent pads will have some difficulty in picking up the heavy material. This new absorbent pad can be used by hand as a scoop and then wiped away. The cotton pads also can cover hard surfaces such as steel plates, shovels, etc. The immediate application of this cotton pad is to use it as absorbent pad on oil layers and semi-viscous oil on marshy land, and contaminated hard surfaces, such as boats. In addition, this cost-efficient cotton pad can be used for cleaning crewmembers who are actively working in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The product is almost ready to go, he said, and the United States Nonwovens Industry has the capability to produce absorbent pad and materials from raw cotton in huge quantities depending on the availability of cotton.

Though recent efforts to cap the well seem hopeful, Presley said the well capping isn’t the end of the story. Even after capping, the shores can expect another 85 days of oil. And even after that, there’s the ecological and economic rebuilding process that may take years or even decades to repair.

“From a humanistic standpoint, they’re truly fighting for their survival down there,” Presley said. “I didn’t realize how devastating at the grassroots level this could be. It’s an environmental tragedy, but the human tragedy is the economic impact on the region that’s really only now getting back on its feet after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They’re all worried down there. And when I say ‘they,’ I mean the fishermen, the people of New Orleans and of Plaquemines Parish. They are worried that the national attention will no longer be focused on their problem after the well is capped, and they’re going to be on their own again to deal with the months and years of cleanup and recovery that will follow.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

Texas Tech to Test Seafood for 'Good Morning America'

After members of the New Orleans Saints are served seafood from the Gulf of Mexico today (Aug. 9), researchers at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health will test fish, shrimp and oysters caught in the gulf for "Good Morning America."

The seafood will arrive Tuesday, and scientists will begin testing it for evidence of oil and dispersant.The segment will air during the week of Aug. 16.

Watch the clip here.

Watch streaming security video of the lab housing the gulf specimens at

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Texas Tech Researcher to Senate: More Science Needed to Understand Oil Dispersants

WASHINGTON -- The unprecedented use of dispersants on the oil spill has created a massive ecotoxicological experiment of which the full impact is yet to be determined, a Texas Tech University researcher testified Wednesday.

Speaking to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech, called for more independent, peer-reviewed research before any determinations could be made on the oil spill’s long term ecological effects.

“We have very limited information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean,” Kendall said. “We have very little information on the ecological effects of this particular oil and dispersant mixture in terms of acute, chronic and indirect effects on marine and coastal organisms. And given the volume of oil and dispersant that have been released into the Gulf of Mexico, we have a very poor understanding of the ultimate ecosystem level effects which may occur in the weeks, to months, to years ahead.”

Kendall said he thought dispersant use has resulted in much of the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon site to remain suspended in the gulf and dispersed in the water column.

Though using the reported 1.8 million gallons of dispersants kept much of the oil from the beaches and marshlands as it intended, it didn’t reduce the amount of oil in the environment, he said. Instead, it thinned the oil, possibly making it more available for exposure and uptake by animals and plant life in the ocean.

View the committee proceedings here>>

Of the dispersants used, most has been Corexit 9500 and 42 percent has been injected at depths between 4,000 and 5,000 feet at the wellhead, he said.

At those depths, the lack of light, oxygen and petroleum-eating microbes could mean that the dispersants and toxic parts of the oil may be suspended and preserved deep below the surface, causing long-term problems for deep-sea life.

“Studies comparing toxicity of oil alone versus dispersed oil show that dispersant-aided changes in crude oil solubility enhance exposure and potential toxicity among aquatic organisms,” Kendall said.

When dispersants meet crude oil, it alters the chemical and physical properties of the oil, changing how the oil behaves in the environment, Kendall said.

Crude oil is a complex mixture of thousands of chemical compounds. From a toxicological standpoint, compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) cause the most concern as many are carcinogenic.

Though scientists already have determined that the oil has a lower content of the PAHs, more are created through the burning of oil that has floated to the surface, he said.

“Simple aromatics, such as benzene, toluene and xylene are volatile and rapidly lost from the oil in most instances,” he said. “But it is not clear what impact the depth of the well and the use of dispersants at that depth might have on the fate of the volatile components in the oil.”

Kendall said the recent efforts by the EPA to characterize dispersant toxicity to marine life represent a step in the right direction in the development of a weight-of-evidence approach to assessing the impact of dispersant use. But critical data gaps still exist regarding the fate, transport and effects of the dispersed oil, particularly in deep water and on deepwater-dwelling organisms.

“It should be noted that nearly all research conducted on the chemical fate, transport and toxicity of dispersants and dispersant-oil mixtures has been performed in settings and under conditions vastly different than those that exist deep in the gulf where much of the dispersants have been applied,” he said.

Threat to Endangered Wildlife

Dispersant use also could wreak havoc on populations of endangered or threatened wildlife in both direct and indirect ways, he said.

The Kemp’s ridley turtles are highly susceptible to stressors such as oil spills and hundreds have been reported dead since April. Young turtles may face even more problems should the oil and dispersant kill off floating Sargassum seaweed they use for cover and a place to rest.

“If oil affects the food supply of the Kemp’s ridley or disturbs critical stages of its life cycle, we may not see oiled, dead Kemp’s ridleys, but their population abundance could be imperiled by subtle indirect effects resulting from dispersed oil in the environment,” he said.

Kendall hoped the hearing would encourage the scientific community to generate much-needed data related to the use of dispersants in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Like everyone else, I received news that the well has been capped with great relief and guarded optimism,” Kendall said. “I believe there is an urgent need for independent, applied research to fill data gaps on the potential impacts of dispersed oil on gulf wildlife. Hopefully, information generated in future studies will aid in the assessment of effects, identification of effective remedial strategies and with the restoration and preservation of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.”

Monday, August 2, 2010

Texas Tech Toxicologist to Testify to Senate Committee on Gulf Dispersant Use, Possible Effects

Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech University will testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the effects that chemical dispersants, such as Corexit, could have on the environment in the Gulf of Mexico.

Testimony begins at 10 a.m. EDT in room 406 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) serves as chairwoman for the committee.

Currently, scientists at TIEHH are conducting a multitude of experiments to discern how oil and dispersants may impact wildlife, endangered species and the environment.

Kendall says that the unprecedented use of dispersants and the depths of their application on the oil spill have created an ecotoxicological experiment, and that scientists have yet to understand its full impact. Because the dispersants do not break down the oil, he fears they could create greater exposure of toxic aromatic hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to gulf fish and wildlife.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Texas Tech Researchers Begin Studies With Corexit, Oil

More than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants have been used in the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest use of these types of chemicals in U.S. history. However, a Texas Tech University researcher said dispersing the oil could cause more problems than leaving the oil alone.

Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech University, compared the heavy use of the dispersants to pouring mineral spirits on a puddle of oil on a garage floor. Though the oil is dispersed, it isn’t removed. Instead, it becomes thinner, more easily moved around and harder to mop up. The affected area becomes larger as well.

“The plan to disperse the oil was a risk-benefit scenario,” Kendall said. “The decision was made to keep the oil off the shoreline. That means you’ve got to disperse it at sea. But the dispersants have been used at an unprecedented level at the wellhead and on the surface. What this has done, in my opinion, has created a much more complicated ecotoxicological issue.”

Though a recent news release from Nalco, makers of the dispersants, claims “further federal testing has concluded that the use of the COREXIT dispersant remains a safe, effective and critical tool in mitigating additional damage in the gulf,” Kendall said he believed there were too many variables in play to make such a claim.
The ingredients in Corexit 9500 and 9527 were recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but very little is known about how the dispersants will react in the environment.

“The heavy use of dispersant has created so many forms of the oil now,” he said. “Some of the oil is extremely dispersed in the water column. It appears some of it is in plumes floating in the gulf. Other parts of it have floated to the surface and a ‘chocolate mousse’ has formed. And they’re mixed now with the dispersant. The sea bottom, the water column and the surface are distributed with oil, and then there’s the oil approaching and making landfall on shoreline. We’ve got all kinds of exposure scenarios for many different species of fish and wildlife.”

The good news, he said, was that when Corexit is sprayed from planes on top of the water, it gets exposed to sunlight and oxygen and will eventually break down. The bad news is the dispersant that’s been injected underwater at the wellhead will likely become preserved in deep water where light can’t penetrate and oxygen is depleted.

“Everybody is talking about keeping the oil off the shore, and that was a policy decision that was made,” he said. “Granted, that affects the ecology of shoreline as well as businesses such as fishing and tourism. But that doesn’t necessarily diminish what’s happening offshore and even in deeper waters. Oil dispersed at sea doesn’t mean it’s not going to go somewhere in the future. If a hurricane takes that water and shoves it into the coastline, it could take that oil and put it into all sorts of places that we don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s a serious time.”

Texas Tech researchers recently received their first sample of Corexit 9500 from Nalco. Todd Anderson, an environmental chemist and toxicologist at TIEHH, said his group is studying how pollutants move in the environment and how they get into organisms.

“After quite a bit of struggle, we finally got some Corexit,” he said. “It’s somewhat unprecedented the volume of dispersants being used and the depths at which it’s being applied. There are some unknown questions about the potential interaction of Corexit and the oil. There have been toxicological studies done on the Corexit itself, and numerous toxicology studies done on the effects of oil. But the interaction of those is somewhat of an unknown question.”

Listen to scientist's struggle to acquire samples here.

Corexit breaks oil into smaller droplets, he said. That doesn’t mean the oil is gone – it’s just more widely dispersed in various parts of the gulf ecosystem. But not only that, questions remain as to the Corexit’s impact when it encounters the oil, such as could it enhance certain toxicological aspects of the oil once treated.

“Corexit is pretty fascinating stuff in that it takes a really small amount of the dispersant to have an impact,” Anderson said. “We essentially put a drop of the Corexit into a system of oil and water, and it was pretty fascinating what it did to that little piece of oil. We added more Corexit to see if it enhanced dispersion even more, and it didn’t do that. A relatively small volume impacts or has that dispersant effect. If you go beyond that, it doesn’t enhance it any further. I don’t know what it means toxicologically. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Chemically, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.”

With the volume of oil spilled somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons, this can create a significant exposure scenario for fish and wildlife, he said.

“The dispersant doesn’t dissolve oil, but it breaks it down into smaller droplets that then hopefully make it more amenable to biodegradation,” Anderson said. “But, that could make the oil more available to be taken up by an organism. That’s one of the questions we’re trying to answer. You see these pictures of birds and crabs getting oiled and that tears your heart out. But that’s a physical effect, not a chemical effect. And so, the real interesting chemical questions are the potential interaction of Corexit with crude oil, and what effect does that have on uptake into animals.”

Read about animal research in The New York Times.

The oil from the gulf spill contains fewer polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – a class of chemicals in the oil that concerns scientists because of their toxicological impact. But as crews burn off crude oil and gasses, that’s creating more PAHs, he said.

Anderson hopes that Texas Tech scientists will begin to generate data from their findings during the next month. And though a recent attempt to cap the well head appears to have succeeded, Anderson said the story doesn’t end when the oil stops flowing.

“I think certainly from some people’s perspective, it won’t be as sexy a story anymore,” Anderson said. “But the potential long-term impact of that much oil in the gulf is what the scientific community is going to be concerned about. These PAH compounds, their acute toxicity issues are not what we’re really worried about. It’s the chronic exposure – a lifetime type of exposure – to low levels and the impact that has. I think the fiddler crab bioaccumulation studies will give us some idea of the timeframe involved if you have oil there, how long it takes to get taken up into an animal and if the animal gets into clean water how long it takes to get out. It’s not the be-all-end-all study to what impact the oil will have, but it’s a good place to start.”

Read why understanding the mixture is important.

Kendall agreed.

“This whole scenario may play out over months to years to a decade,” he said. “We just don’t know yet. It’s very complex. Not only has this spill been described as the largest spill in U.S. history and the greatest environmental disaster, I would say it’s about the most complex ecotoxicological event that I have dealt with in my career.”

Monday, June 28, 2010

Texas Tech Ecotoxicology Book Slated to Become National, International Bestseller

Only a month and a half after its release, a wildlife ecotoxicology reference book co-edited by researchers at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) is projected to become a national and international bestseller, according to the book’s publishers.

The book, Wildlife Toxicology: Emerging Contaminant and Biodiversity Issues, is the first reference to address environmental threats to wildlife in a single volume and recommend proven mitigation techniques to protect and sustain Earth’s wildlife populations.

“We are all very excited about the publication’s success, namely due to the team of authors and TIEHH’s credibility and reputation,” said Randy Brehm, editor of agricultural sciences for Chemical and Life Sciences Group at Taylor and Francis publishing firm. “We’ve forecasted the book to become a national and international bestseller based on our current market trends. The unfortunate timeliness due to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has contributed to the visibility of the book subject matter, as well. We’re hoping the book is proving invaluable to those dealing with wildlife toxicology issues in the field right now.”

Ron Kendall, director of TIEHH, is chief editor of the book, which provides a global assessment of a range of environmental stressors, including pesticides, environmental contaminants, other emerging chemical threats and their impact on wildlife populations.

The book also addresses atmospheric pollution that leads to species range shifts, ocean acidification, coral bleaching and impacts on heightened ultraviolet influx. It presents several case studies that demonstrate effects of contaminants on species and impacts on communities.

Other editors include professors George Cobb and Stephen Cox at TIEHH, and professor Tom Lacher at Texas A&M University. World-renowned conservation authority Thomas Lovejoy provides a forward to the text.

“I never expected this book to do so well,” Kendall said. “It is amazing to see this book’s success in such a very short period of time. I look at this success as a part of Texas Tech’s research journey in environmental toxicology and a fine example of our excellence in the field. The book itself has international participation from here to Africa and around the world. And right now, it can answer many questions people are asking about the current problems related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Kendall, who recently received the Gerald H. Cross Alumni Leadership Award from Virginia Tech, currently serves as editor for terrestrial toxicology for the journal Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry. He has authored more than 200 refereed journal and technical articles and has published or edited several books.

Brehm said the book had 300 issues on backorder even before it published.

“The number of books sold is very impressive for a scientific reference in such a specialized subject,” she said. “This is a novel book in the area of wildlife toxicology, and it is a hot field that continues to receive media coverage. Dr. Kendall founded this area of science, so the book is written by the person who should have done it. We see this book achieving more success to come.”

For more information, visit

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Initial Texas Tech-Created Fibertect® Field Test a Success

GRAND ISLE, La. (Special) – A preliminary test of Fibertect® on the soiled beaches of Grand Isle, La., has proven it successful at picking up the oily paste washing ashore at beaches and marshes across the Gulf State region.

Seshadri Ramkumar, an associate professor of nonwoven technologies, said the Texas Tech-created nonwoven cotton absorbent wipe with activated carbon core makes it a perfect remediation tool for use by cleaning crews trying to remove the toxic material.

Not only did it clean up the rust-colored crude oil, but also it adsorbed toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon vapors reportedly sickening oil spill clean-up crew members.

“It definitely has proven itself a perfect product for cleaning up the oil spill,” Ramkumar said. “This preliminary test in Louisiana has shown that our wipe material is unique from others in that it easily absorbs liquids, and it has vapor-holding capacity. This will help workers clean beaches and stay safe at the same time.”

Watch how it's made here.

Ramkumar said his latest research shows raw cotton-carbon Fibertect® can absorb oil up to 15 times its weight. Unlike synthetic materials like polypropylene that are currently used in many oil containment booms, Fibertect® is made from environmentally friendly raw cotton and carbon.

Amit Kapoor is president of First Line Technology, which distributes Fibertect® commercially. Though the product has been tested in the lab with raw crude and motor oil, he said the company wanted to field-test the product.

Earlier this week, he sent a sales representative, who also works as an independent contractor for BP, to one of the worst-hit areas.

“We wanted to test the effectiveness of Fibertect® on the crude oil for beach cleanup,” Kapoor said. “Fibertect® was taken to the empty beaches of Grand Isle, and then laid out on top of a blob of oil that had settled on the beach. It worked very well in absorbing and containing the oil. The glob stuck to the Fibertect® and did not release from the material.”

Though Kapoor said he had seen Fibertect® pick up similar material with a pasty consistency, such as petroleum jelly, the results shocked the sales representative sent to run the experiment.

“Our representative was shocked as ever because he hadn’t seen a product work like that with the speed or the effectiveness,” Kapoor said. “He showed many other contractors that were working on the beach and they were impressed as well.”

Fibertect® was approved for use as a sorbent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ramkumar said. The product already has proven that it can also adsorb toxic fumes associated with chemical remediation, he said. Evaluation by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that it can retain offgassing mustard vapors efficiently and does not shed loose particles.

Originally developed to protect the U.S. military from chemical and biological warfare agents, Fibertect® contains a fibrous activated carbon center that is sandwiched between layers.

The top and bottom layers, made from raw cotton, can absorb oil while the center layer holds volatile compounds such as the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or blistering agents such as mustard vapors or other toxic chemicals.

“Fibertect® already has proven to be effective in the bulk decontamination of chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals, but our proposal here is to use it to aid in the clean-up efforts in the Gulf,” Kapoor said. “Fibertect® allows for a green, environmentally safe, biodegradable technology that is perfect for the expanding effort to protect and decontaminate coastal lands and wildlife. We welcome the opportunity to work with the government, BP or anyone else in a joint effort to defend and preserve our planet.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Texas Tech Researchers Talk With Alabama Natives About Importance of Independent Research

While looking for oil samples off Dauphin Island, Texas Tech researchers Ernest Smith and Mike Wages encounter some locals who own a pier off Mobile Bay. The men, a father and his sons, discuss their concern and offer assistance to the researchers. Their pier is right by an estuary and close to an oyster bed. Smith tells them how scientists at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health want to assist.

Texas Tech Researchers Discover Gulf Waters Run Smooth in Oil Slicks

MOBILE, Ala. (Special) – Something wasn’t right with the sea.

Waves stopped. Smoothed out. The wind seemed not to affect the water in the same way. You could even feel it in the way “Riptide,” the hired fishing boat, reacted as it crossed into this new phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico.

It became an eerie telltale sign to the three Texas Tech University researchers that they’d entered an oil slick.

“We started to see a change in the – it’s hard to explain – sort of a change in the choppiness in the water,” said Phil Smith, an associate professor at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech. “There was something different about it. It was smoother, almost like that certain area was shielded from the wind or something. We were all on the lookout for oil. We were hoping we’d be able to find some oil so we could collect samples to take back to Texas Tech.”

On a clear June 4 morning, Phil Smith, Ernest Smith and Mike Wages went to collect the last of their samples for testing. The sun shone brightly as a southwesterly breeze blew.

Getting out of the marina at Orange Beach proved difficult as the captain maneuvered through booms meant to keep oil out of Mobile Bay. Official-looking eyes watched closely as the fishing boat headed into waters closed to fishing by the federal government.

Had it not been for the continuing oil spill crisis, it would have been a great day to go fishing on the Gulf. However, the calm, slick water wasn’t the only difference the team saw, Phil said. Throughout their trip, the team noticed an eerie absence of wildlife and people.

“We spent eight hours on water,” Phil said. “I saw only two birds. Two. I saw more helicopters than I did birds. We saw no fish. We saw no other boats. I would have expected far greater numbers of anything. Also, outside of boom operations near the shoreline, there were absolutely no cleanup efforts ongoing out at sea. That was a little bit shocking. I would think it would be easier to clean up before it hit the coast than after.

“It was very, very quiet.”

At six miles out, the captain reported smelling diesel fuel odor, but no oil appeared until the crew reached 13 miles from shore.

“As we were going out, we could see what I am calling the leading edge of this crude, which is the small tar balls like we had seen on the beach at Dauphin Island,” said Ernest, an associate professor at TIEHH. “You can clearly identify where oil or surfactant is on the water. Those areas were very smooth. Next to that area, you can see the wind breaking the waves. That would denote a difference in surface tension.”

The team came in contact with the largest tar mats at about 22 miles out, Ernest said. Altogether, they collected four five-gallon buckets of the rust colored crude, a few gallons of water from the smooth, calm areas covered with a rainbow sheen and containing smaller tar droplets, and a few gallons of plain seawater collected closer to shore, which they believed to be uncontaminated.

While on board, two members of the team got sick, Phil said.

“I can’t say it was because of the oil,” he said. “I was on the upper deck taking pictures and watching what Ernest and Mike were doing below. Mike got ill first. I didn’t really think that was that unusual. Then I sort of swapped out with those guys and collected a couple of buckets of oil samples. On the trip in, I got really sick and nauseous. I’ve been on boats all my life. I used to be a fishing guide, and I’ve never been seasick. This might have been the first time for me, or could have been the heat. But it also could have been something else.”

During the next few weeks, researchers at TIEHH will begin testing the samples to find out their composition, Ernest said.

“The No. 1 thing we want to do is help,” he said. “What is needed there is a significant amount of toxicology on human and animal health. I think the institute has a major role to play in the understanding of ecological and human health effects of this crude. In addition to that, I am interested in the socioeconomic impacts, and how this will play out both directly and indirectly.

“For me it’s important that the socioeconomics problems get some attention. Over the long term, if we ignore that, it will be just as devastating as the ecosystem. It definitely needs a voice.”

Friday, June 11, 2010

CNN's John Zarrella Helps Texas Tech Find Oil on iReport

iReport —

While searching for oil and tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon spill, Texas Tech researchers are led to samples on Dauphin Island's public beach by CNN's John Zarrella.

Zarrella explained that the oil was much better than it had been previously that day. Workers carried black plastic bags and removed what they saw, leaving tidy sand behind. Still, tar balls continued to roll up on the shore.

While there in Alabama, two undercurrents existed. Those fishermen whose livelihoods will be most effected were most willing to do anything to help researchers Ernest Smith and Mike Wages. Most were glad to have an independent academic organization interested in finding out the truth of the situation, and stated their trust in BP no longer existed.

Other local government officials and people under contract for BP were much more suspicious and less likely to assist, becoming hostile or "playing dumb" when the researchers asked them how to find sampling areas.

Ernest Smith Discusses Sample Retrieved By Alabama TV Reporter on iReport

iReport —

Texas Tech researcher Ernest Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Toxicology at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health, discusses the first sample he collected recently in Mobile Bay, Ala.

The sample was collected by WKRG weekend anchor and reporter Kimberly Curth and donated to Texas Tech for chemical analysis. You can watch her report here:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

CNN Reporter Assists Texas Tech Researchers to Find Small Tar Balls at Dauphin Island

MOBILE , Ala. – CNN reporter John Zarrella assisted Texas Tech University scientists Wednesday in locating oil samples washing ashore on the public beach at Dauphin Island, Ala.

Researchers Ernest Smith and Mike Wages collected approximately a quarter pound of beached oil, which had eluded the researchers because of the small size, the changed appearance once mixed with sand and efforts by BP workers scouring the tourist spot.

“It looks more like sponge right now when it’s combined with the sand,” Smith said. “It’s a tribute to the workers how clean this beach is right now.”

Zarrella, the channel’s correspondent from Miami, said the beach had much improved since oil began washing ashore Tuesday and workers began clearing away the telltale red blobs now threatening to reach Florida by Friday.

“A lot of the stuff is gone,” Zarella said as he pointed out a small blob of oily paste mixed with sand. “That’s nothing compared to the size of the stuff out here earlier. It’s starting to fall apart.”

Smith said he would take the oil back to The Institute of Environmental and Human Health and compare the chemistry of the beached oil to that of the sample retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico by Mobile's WKRG weekend anchor Kimberly Curth.

As time passes, the oil changes composition as it comes up from the 5,000-foot depths of the exploded Deepwater Horizon rig and is exposed to air, sun, chemical dispersants and seawater.

Texas Tech researchers will travel to Baton Rouge Thursday for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Scientific Symposium at Louisiana State University. On Friday, they will return to Mobile to charter a boat and retrieve more samples from the ocean.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Texas Tech Researchers Get First Samples of Oil from Gulf Spill

{Editor’s Note: Difficulties acquiring access to wetlands in Louisiana prompted Texas Tech researchers to continue their work in Alabama}

MOBILE, Ala. -- Thanks to the help of a local television news team, researchers at Texas Tech University received on Memorial Day their first samples of affected seawater and the oily paste floating in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This sample is like gold for the study of environmental and human health questions we are asking,” said Ernest E. Smith, an associate professor in The Department of Environmental Toxicology and The Institute of Environmental and Human Health. “By having this sample, we’ll be able to uniquely determine its components, develop a chemical ‘fingerprint’ of the sample and build a toxicological profile.”

The paste, a brown, gooey blob about the size of a salad plate, was collected by Kimberly Curth of WKRG-CBS in Mobile for a report on the encroaching oil spill that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects to hit Dauphin Island, Ala., sometime this week.

“It’s about the consistency of peanut butter,” Curth said prior to her 6 p.m. live shot. “If you look, there’s an oily sheen to it, but it doesn’t have a diesel smell or oily smell to it. Don’t you think it looks like what’s been washing up in Louisiana, though?”

Curth said she and photojournalist Arnell Hamilton chartered a boat to see the oil for themselves. Starting that morning, their boat left from the eastern end of Dauphin Island and went about 22 miles south before running into patches of the oil.

“There were big globs of it, and then there were, like, little tar balls around it,” she said. “But you could see where it was because there was a sheen on the water.”

The problem became disposing of the oil safely following the segment, she said. News

WKRG will continue to follow the story as Texas Tech researchers discover the makeup of the sample, she said.

Though oil spills have occurred before in the past, Smith said scientists do not have a full understanding of this particular spill’s impact because of the volume of oil and the fact that it’s raw oil coming straight from the ground into a saltwater environment.

Other factors, such as sunlight, ocean currents and the depth of the leak, also affect the chemistry of the spill, which is constantly changing by location as time passes.

“We have no answers for the current problem, which is very, very large,” Smith said. “There are many variables involved with this particular problem. We just want to add a neutral voice that says ‘these are the facts.’ We’re not activists or politicians.”

As of 6 p.m. on Memorial Day, no sign of the oil had hit the east side of the island, and boaters and holidaymakers continued to fish and use the water. Winds from the southwest could push the oil closer to the Mississippi Delta, according to the NOAA. Oil is expected to reach Mobile Bay by Wednesday.

Also, the NOAA has shut down approximately 26 percent of the Gulf for fishing on the heels of red snapper season, which begins June 1. The area is about 62,000 square miles.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Scientists Encounter Rare Turtle During Research Trip

What started as an opportunity for Texas Tech University researchers to develop collaborative research relationship with others ended with a rare encounter with an endangered species now threatened by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

While on South Padre Island taking baseline samples to measure against the probable onslaught of oil heading for Texas shores, Phil Smith, an associate professor, and Greg Mayer, an assistant professor at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH), watched as a female Kemp’s ridley sea turtle made her way back down the beach after nesting in the dunes.

“We were extraordinarily fortunate to come across a sea turtle that had just nested,” Smith said. “We worked with permitted park officials to take the appropriate measurements and learn the identity of that particular turtle. Then they called in an expert to excavate the eggs. The eggs will go into a ‘headstart program’ that promotes hatchling success. Once the eggs have hatched, they’ll release them in the Gulf. Their survival is always tenuous at that stage of life, but now there’s another stressor that we’re really concerned about.”

From May 16 to May 21, researchers at TIEHH began building research relationships with researchers at the Ceasar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University – Kingston, to collaborate oil spill research.

“This meeting paved the way for a lot of the things we were able to do there on this trip,” Smith said. “Fred Bryant, the director, has strong Texas Tech ties. His group has such great experience, expertise and access to properties in that part of Texas that we can’t touch. And we’ve got world-renowned contamination issues expertise. We’re potentiating our expertise and capabilities.”

Next, the group took Jeff Young of NPR’s “Living on Earth” to the Audubon Society’s Green Island Rookery. Rarely seen by the public, this preserve served as the backdrop for the radio program covering what could happen if oil seeps into animal sanctuaries such as this one. Listen to the program.

“If oil gets access to these kinds of areas it's not only difficult to clean it up but it could be devastating for the food source,” said Ron Kendall, director of TIEHH. “So, you might not have to directly kill the birds by oil. But when you take away food source or the habitat—for instance, the turtle grass flats, the inland flats where all your juvenile fish and shrimp and crabs are, those are the areas you’ve got to protect. It's why all these birds are here.”

Being on the island was an incredible experience, Smith said, because so many animals call it home.

“This is an incredibly important nesting ground for all manner of wading birds,” he said. “It was like being in a zoo with no fences. Every bird of every color, shape and size. It truly was a sight to behold and not many people get to see that.”

Next, TIEHH researchers met with Dr. Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery with the National Parks Service at Padre Island National Seashore. They also met the head of science and resource management, Jim Lindsay, and discussed doing some baseline, pre-event monitoring of pollutants on the 60-mile long island. The group spent two days placing monitoring devices in the sand, and will return to remove and replace before oil hits the coast.

That’s when they met with the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Padre Island is the most important nesting ground in the United States for these animals. With the possibility of oil washing ashore, the scientists want to keep a close eye on how much goes where because oil is toxic to turtle nests.

These turtles, the smallest marine sea turtles in the world, once were so common, people in Mexico called the day they’d come to shore to lay eggs the “arribada”, meaning “arrival all at once.” Home movie footage from 1947 shows the arrival of approximately 42,000 turtles scrambling up the shoreline to nest.

“Before arribada, the turtles staged themselves offshore,” Smith said. “When conditions were right, they stormed the beaches at Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They did that because it overwhelmed the predators. But the sad part about that is when humans caught wind of that, they would harvest the eggs to eat.”

Severe poaching for the tasty eggs and fishing practices drove them nearly to extinction, despite laws enacted in the 1960s to protect them. At their lowest point, only 702 turtle nests were counted in 1985. Since that time, the population has experienced a modest comeback, he said. About 8,000 females nested last year.

“To give you some idea, back when they first started counting in the 1980s, researchers documented only 11 nesting sites in all of Texas for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles – for the whole year,” he said. “The day we were working on Padre, 15 finds occurred on that island alone and 20 in Texas. But even seeing the one we did is uncommon. They told us that there are people who have worked there for 10 years and never seen one.”

Smith said a permitted park service employee tracked the turtle’s ID tags and radioed them to headquarters. Immediately, tracking information indicated that this particular turtle had already visited Padre Island this year to deposit a clutch of eggs. Females nest about 3 times a year.

“We’re trying to foster collaborative research efforts and are seeking any and all funding sources to help preserve a truly wonderful creature,” Smith said.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Texas Tech Cotton Decontamination Invention Perfect Cleanup Medium for Gulf Oil Rig Spill

Ramkumar3Fibertect, the same Texas Tech-created nonwoven cotton technology that keeps soldiers safe from chemical and biological warfare agents, may also serve as the perfect sponge for sopping up oil that has polluted the Gulf of Mexico.

As oil continues to gush from the exploded Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a Texas Tech University expert in nonwoven cotton technology says the fabric of our lives may do a better job to absorb the oil spill than the booms made of synthetic material.

The oil spill has now been called the worst in U.S. history.

“Already, several million feet of the oil-containment booms have been used to capture the oil spilling into the Gulf,” said Seshadri Ramkumar, associate professor of Nonwoven materials at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH). “They are made of synthetic materials, don’t biodegrade and absorb only a third of what raw cotton can do. The properties of raw cotton allow it to soak up 40 times its weight. With chemical modifications, it can soak up to as much as 70 times its weight. And it won’t just stay in a landfill forever.”

Ramkumar’s research focuses on developing value-added materials using nonwoven materials and nanotechnology. He supervises the Nonwoven and Advanced Materials Laboratory at TIEHH. Watch Fibertect in action here.

He is the creator of several nonwoven cotton technologies including Fibertect™, which is used in the U.S. military’s decontamination kits. He and a small group of his graduate students are researching ways to use lower-quality cottons that don’t make apparel grade for uses such as this.

“The nonwoven industry in the United States is well equipped with technologies that can develop oil-absorbent pads from natural fibers like cotton,” Ramkumar said.

In December 2008, the newly-developed decontamination wipe proved itself the best for cleaning up chemical warfare agents and toxic chemicals following an evaluation of Fibertect as part of a study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Scientists tested the wipe using mustard gas and other toxic chemicals and found that the Texas Tech-created product out-performed 30 different decontamination materials, including materials currently used in military decontamination kits.

The results are published online in the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research and titled, “Next Generation Non-particulate Dry Nonwoven Pad for Chemical Warfare Agent Decontamination.”

Currently, the Fibertect wipe is under production by Hobbs Bonded Fibers of Waco and is distributed by First Line Technologies.

Fibertect for Oil Fact Sheet