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Scientists Dispute Government Stance on the Lingering Effects of Gulf Oil

The government says Gulf seafood is safe and most of the spilled oil is gone, but a triple-whammy of reports raises doubts. Significant risks remain, researchers say.

As we've noted, scientists seemed, on the whole, rather skeptical when a government report said most of the oil from BP’s well was gone from the Gulf of Mexico. Now the pushback against the government’s stance has grown, with several scientific reports released this week.

Researchers at the University of Georgia found that up to 79 percent of the oil released into the Gulf “has not been recovered and remains a threat to the ecosystem.” This “strongly contradicts” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s report and the press coverage of it, according to a statement from the university.

“The news media’s tendency to interpret ‘dispersed’ and ‘dissolved’ as ‘gone’ is wrong,” the report read. “Dispersed and dissolved forms can be highly toxic.” (Read the full report in our document viewer.)

Scientists at the University of South Florida seem to agree. They announced this week that while on a research mission in the Gulf, they had used UV lighting to detect what was likely oil contained in sediment on the ocean floor. (More on the use of UV lighting to detect oil.)

“It wasn’t like a drape, don’t get me wrong, or like a blanket of oil,” chief scientist David Hollander said on a conference call with journalists. “Rather, it looked like a constellation of stars that were at the scale of microdroplets. They seemed to be at every location we looked east of the wellhead.”

The scientists cautioned that materials other than oil could have the same type of ultraviolet fluorescence that they observed, and that further testing was needed to positively identify the substances as oil, particularly as oil from BP’s well. (These are the same scientists who, early on, discovered the deepwater plumes of oil and insisted upon chemically fingerprinting their samples to verify that they matched BP’s oil.)

The USF scientists also announced that they found phytoplankton—organisms that make up the basis of the Gulf food web—in poor health, and noted that they appeared to be more negatively affected by dispersant than were bacteria, which seemed more sensitive to the oil. (Read their report.) “The waters have a toxicity that needs to be recognized,” Hollander said.

Finally, the Journal of the American Medical Association also published a study this week that called into question the government’s assertions about the safety of Gulf seafood. According to the report’s authors—Gina Solomon and Sarah Janssen, both medical doctors affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council—vertebrate marine life can clear oil hydrocarbons from their systems, but the “chemicals accumulate for years in invertebrates" such as shrimp, crabs and oysters.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has been testing Gulf seafood for oil hydrocarbons, disagreed with the study's findings, maintaining that its testing was thorough. The agency told McClatchy Newspapers that officials have a program to test contamination in shellfish and have not found problems.

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