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Jars of seafood samples line laboratory benches at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility, awaiting detailed chemical analysis for traces of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. But nobody checks for traces of the chemical dispersants dumped in the Gulf in unprecedented amounts to break up the oil.
NOAA scientists in Seattle are working on a procedure to detect minute levels of the chemicals in the flesh of fish and shellfish, said center Director Usha Varanasi. But don't expect it to be rolled out soon.
"Method development takes time," Varanasi said Thursday during a tour of the lab in Montlake. NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said an initial version of the test might be ready within six weeks. Even then, agencies have yet to determine what level of dispersant chemicals is safe — or dangerous — to consume.
Based on their chemistry, which is similar to water-soluble detergents, there's no reason to expect the dispersants to be highly toxic or to accumulate in fish and shellfish, Varanasi said. And because the dispersants mix with oil, NOAA's existing tests for petroleum contaminants should also detect any samples tainted by dispersant, she added.
Gilbert agrees those are reasonable assumptions — but says there's little evidence to back them up. "It's just nutty that we haven't done the studies."