Not long after the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010, people in the coastal areas of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida began complaining of respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms they believe were linked to the noxious fumes of the BP oil spill. Now a new government report about the pollution emitted from the spill and the attempts to clean it up may support such claims.
As millions of gallons of oil spread out over the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup crews moved in to try to contain the mess. One of the methods they used in an effort to keep the oil from reaching fragile coastal areas was burning the oil as it emerged.
“We could see the sooty black clouds from the burning oil, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. Our instruments detected a much more massive atmospheric plume of almost invisible small organic particles and pollutant gases downwind of the oil spill site,” said Ann M. Middlebrook, scientist at NOAA ESRL’s Chemical Sciences Division (CSD) and lead author of the study.
Air pollution from the oil’s natural evaporation – the oil that wasn’t burned – released 10 times more toxic particles into the air than the burning oil.
Daniel Murphy, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist and co-author of the report, said that all the smoke and fumes were “like having a large city’s worth of pollution appear out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Normally, the marine air is very clean in that part of the Gulf,” said Joost de Gouw, another of the NOAA report authors. “The oil spill put a source of pollution in there that brought levels of levels of ozone and particulates that are normally seen in cities.”
The new report, published Wednesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the levels of ozone and particulates created by the BP oil spill. The NOAA researchers found that two giant atmospheric plumes of pollution reached the coast.
One plume consisted of ozone, the result of hydrocarbons from the evaporating oil reacting with nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, and measured two miles wide. The other, made up of particulates, was 18.5 miles wide by the time it reached the coast. Both types of pollution can have an adverse impact on the lungs.