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.