The environmentalist's horror image of an oil spill is usually the affliction to wildlife—birds and fish coated in black crude, struggling to move or to breathe. But a study by a Canadian researcher, just published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, suggests that the spill itself might be only the beginning of the problem. The cleanup effort might be even worse.

Oil and water don't mix, but Peter Hudson of Queen's University says that the detergents used to clean up an oil spill like the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster reduce that surface tension—that is, they allow oil to mix with water droplets. Over the long term, he says, that helps disperse oil and eventually get rid of it, and makes it less of a threat to animals that dwell on or near the surface. However, he says, the dark side is that once oil has an easier time mixing with the water, hydrocarbons have an easier time entering the ecosystem and the food chain. This is a deadly scenario for fish, especially young ones.


Detergent isn't the only villain that disperses oil into the ecosystem. The researchers concluded that even a raging current on a freshwater river, where detergents are not typically used, can have the same effect.


This kind of news is coming at about the worst time, because global shipping, whether of crude oil or anything else, is on the dramatic rise as globalization demands the international movement of goods. According to the International Maritime Organization, the total tonnage of seaborne trade in the world increased nearly threefold from 1970 to 2006, from 2.5 billion tons to about 7.4 billion. Now the news that oil cleanups might be even more damaging than oil spills brings more bad news to the industry—as if being attacked and hijacked by Somalian pirates wasn't bad enough. 


In addition, oil exploration is about to enter a new frontier. The Arctic is melting at a record-setting pace, and once the area is regularly open and the American and Canadian coast guards give their approval for safe commercial activity, energy companies will race into the region to exploit its petroleum and natural gas resources. Given how little still know about the Arctic, and what it will look like in coming years, travel will be dangerous up there, and accidents might become more frequent. 


Thankfully, the industry appears to have gotten safer—or luckier. Since 2004, the IMO reports, the ratio of oil spilt to the total amount shipped in the world has stabilized at a relatively low level. In 2007, tankers spilt 16,000 tons of oil; if that seems like a lot, consider that they shipped 2.4 billion tons in total, meaning .0007 percent was lost.


Let's hope this relatively low accident rate continues, because Hudson's oil detergent study hammers home another pesky lesson: just about any disaster is much easier to prevent in the first place than clean up after the fact. And with acidification, pollution and over-fishing, the oceans have it bad enough already.