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Study: Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill entered Gulf food chain

A new study confirms that oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill made it into the Gulf’s food chain through the tiniest of organisms, zooplankton.

Oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico made it into the ocean’s food chain through the tiniest of organisms, zooplankton, according to a study published in February 2012 issue of Geographical Research Letters.

Since the explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, scientists have been working to understand the impact that this disaster has had on the environment. For months, crude oil gushed into the water at a rate of approximately 53,000 barrels per day before the well was capped on July 15, 2010.

Plumes of smoke from oil burns are seen near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 19, 2010. Via Nola.com

Tiny drifting animals in the ocean, zooplankton are useful to track oil-derived pollution. They serve as food for baby fish and shrimp and act as conduits for the movement of oil contamination and pollutants into the food chain. The study confirms that not only did oil affect the ecosystem in the Gulf during the blowout, but it was still entering the food web after the well was capped.

Oil, which is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be used to fingerprint oil and determine its provenance. The researchers were able to identify the signature unique to the Deep Water Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Researcher Siddhartha Mitra of Eastern Carolina University said:

Our work demonstrated that zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Mexico accumulated toxic compounds derived from the Macondo well.

Louisiana's Grand Terre Island marshes were contaminated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Image Credit: Andrew Whitehead

The team’s research indicates that the fingerprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be found in some zooplankton in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem at low levels, as much as a month after the leaking wellhead was capped. In addition, the extent of the contamination seemed to be patchy. Some zooplankton at certain locations far removed from the spill showed evidence of contamination, whereas zooplankton in other locations, sometimes near the spill, showed lower indications of exposure to the oil-derived pollutants. Dr. Michael Roman of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science said:

Traces of oil in the zooplankton prove that they had contact with the oil and the likelihood that oil compounds may be working their way up the food chain.

Bottom line: A study published in February 2012 issue of Geographical Research Letters says that oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico made it into the ocean’s food chain through the tiniest of organisms, zooplankton.

Read more from University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Studies

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