On Oil Spills and Making Mistakes

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

In a recent interview regarding the BP oil disaster, Bill McKibben pointed out that even if all the oil had reached its intended destination—i.e., your corner gas station—it still would be an ecological and human health catastrophe. It is only because of the acute and immediate impacts of this so-called “spill” (which hardly captures nature of the devastation) that we actually stop, at least for a moment, and consider the magnitude of the ways we humans persistently undermine the health of our home planet and thus, ourselves.

A colleague once said to me: “I don’t mind making mistakes—that’s how we get better at what we do; but I don’t want to make the same mistakes—only new mistakes.” The current oil calamity in the Gulf is another profoundly sad example of our proclivity to repeatedly make myopic mistakes. Though this situation may be considered the single largest environmental disaster in US history, it is hardly an aberration—and it is hardly just an “environmental” disaster. Instead, the current oil spill only underscores how challenging it seems to be for us to make systemic changes for the benefit of all as well as why we should never forget that human health and environmental health are inherently inseparable.

Let’s just look for a moment at the chemical dispersants being used. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2005 entitled Oil Spill Dispersants: Efficacy and Effects, that suggested a research agenda (very similar, by the way, to the one NAS published in 1989 entitled Using Oil Dispersants at Sea) to answer many questions about these dispersants that still remain unanswered today, such as: Do dispersants in fact help degrade oil more quickly or actually slow the process of degradation? What is the toxicity (not just lethality) of these chemicals when mixed with oil to organisms over time? Add these unknowns to the fact that the infamous formaldehyde-infused trailers that were given to victims of the Katrina Hurricane have now been resurrected for use by oil spill workers and others in impacted communities on the Gulf. (See Richard Denison’s blogs for more details on these issues.) And these are just a couple minor examples of our collective inertia, even when external forces (such as science-based recommendations and disastrous oil spills) are applied.

So how to we keep from making the same mistakes? Several ways that we can do so are by taking precautionary action based on what we already know from the best available science, prioritizing community-based research, and implementing and enforcing regulatory measures that are truly protective of the health of current and future generations.

To help us understand what those steps might look like, CHE is hosting two national partner calls in the next few weeks. Though the calls will be focused on the health effects of the current oil spill, the experts we have invited to speak will also address the broader questions and possible solutions we must consider to avoid continuing to catalyze similar calamities. The first to be held on Thursday July 29th will highlight presentations made at the Institute of Medicine’s recent meeting on the oil spill in the Gulf. The second to be held Thursday August 12th will feature Wilma Subra, one of the foremost research scientists for low-income communities in the Gulf Coast. For more information on these upcoming calls, please see CHE’s website.

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