As Everyone Looks Down at What Gulf Oil Spill Has Wrought, UC Irvine Researchers Look Up

Tar balls created by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico reached the Texas shore today.

But researchers from UC Irvine are not looking at the sands, shorelines and waters impacted by the muck, they are checking out the air hovering over the spill zone.

The initial findings: all is not well.

A plane drops dispersant in ocean waters contaminated by the gulf oil spill.
A plane drops dispersant in ocean waters contaminated by the gulf oil spill.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann

"Record levels of potentially harmful chemicals have been detected by UC Irvine researchers in the air around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico," began a June 25 UCI Today report. "While the findings are preliminary, they illustrate a critical need for further testing."

That was written by Janet Wilson, the former Times Orange County environmental reporter who recently contributed articles and blog posts to the Weekly before joining the University Communications office.

"There are lots of hydrocarbons rising from all this muck," Donald Blake, the chairman of UCI's chemistry department, tells Wilson. "What we don't know is whether this air came from somewhere else or is bubbling up from below."

The piece goes on to report that Blake and Nobel laureate chemist F. Sherwood Rowland were poring over data collected from air samples contained in 400 canisters. But their initial findings discovered concentrations of certain chemicals exceeding any they've found before,  including over Mexico City, Oklahoma oil tank farms and other heavily polluted urban areas like Los Angeles.

It was unclear at that time whether the alkyl nitrates, methane, and hexane and butane compounds the pair identified could be from oil rising to the surface, the dispersant used to break it up or other unknown sources.

Exposure to the stuff can lead to eye and skin irritation and burns, dizziness and even suffocation.

Both eggheads expressed frustration over insufficient funding and government coordination of air testing above the massive slick.

Barbara Barletta, a UCI chemistry special assistant, seconds that emotion in an Orange County Register post today.

She is also quick to reiterate that air research over the spill area is still in the very early stages, and that data is still being interpreted.

But, so far, traces of the material that makes up crude oil--long-chain hydrocarbons, as well as aromatic compounds, such as benzene, toluene, and xylene, all known carcinogens--have been found there, according to Barletta.

With more funding, the researchers say, they can continue monitoring the air and watching for increases or decreases in airborne hazardous chemicals, which can then reported to the EPA.

And then, hopefully, taken out of BP's ass--that is, if multinational oil conglomerates have asses.


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