When the Cleanup is Worse Than the Spill

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.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less