It’s a good thing marine biologist Buki Rinkevich and his colleagues at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Station decided to test the effects of detergents on corals before using them to clean up an oil spill.
The researchers reported recently in Environmental Science and Technology that millimeter sized coral fragments succumbed to the detergent before the oil itself. The detergents and the dispersed oil droplets all proved significantly more toxic to the coral than crude oil, causing rapid, widespread death or stunted growth rates, even at doses recommended by the dispersant manufacturers.
Although the detergents help break up oil slicks and prevent them from smothering coral, the increased surface area of the smaller droplets “means that more toxic components of the oil can come out,” says Rinkevich.
The benefits of the dispersant are supposedly targeted primarily towards birds, mangroves, and sea turtles, but perhaps also the spillers of the oil, looking for a little “damage control” of their own. More popular spill control alternatives rely on mechanical containment and recovery, such as booms to corral the oil and skimmers to collect it.
Photo credit: NOAA. Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide; Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, April, 1986.