Group obtains toxicological survey of gulf
OSU researchers publish data from aftermath of 2009 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 21:07
For a past group of Oregon State University researchers, auspicious circumstances and efficient modes of preparation set them up for a unique and timely study in the Gulf of Mexico.
In May 2009, a group of researchers, including alumna Dr. Sarah Allan and graduate student of toxicology Steven O’Connell, travelled to the gulf with the support of Dr. Kim Anderson, director of the Food Safety and Environmental Stewardship Program. The group worked to obtain a toxicological survey of the water in the gulf with news of the British Petroleum offshore oil spill.
“We went down a week and a half after the spill started,” Allan said. “We collected data once a month for a year to create a massive data set valuable to other agencies and academic groups.”
The group’s data was collected with the assistance of passive sampling devices, which target PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These devices include films containing synthesized PAHs of similar composition to those of interest, tagged with deuterium. The deuterium allowed the group to differentiate the synthesized PAHs from those in the water that are attracted to them. Once these synthesized films were collected from the gulf and extracted back here at OSU, they were able to study the long-term, real-time chemistry of the region, searching for carcinogens such as benzo[a]pyrene (BaP), which can pose a great risk for affected ecosystems.
“PAHs are naturally occurring,” O’Connell said. “But by looking for particular compounds, we can identify a baseline and see more complete trends in PAH levels.”
Several aspects of their study separated them from the large number of research studies in the area. First of all, they had no alterior motives for their study. Instead of being funded by stakeholders in the spill, they received funding and support for the sole purpose of traveling to the gulf region to gather and present the data.
“We were pretty independent, which was unique in that situation,” Allan said. “We didn’t really have any liability interest in what was going on and were interested in what was going on in the gulf.”
Additionally, the group was able to interact with local communities, national parks and wildlife refuges to make data accessible to them. The team tactfully used these parks and refuges to obtain permission and backing for their studies with the goal of obtaining data professionally and ethically.
“We partnered with state parks to get permits for our research,” O’Connell said. “They also, in return, kept an eye on our equipment.”
Within the study itself and the methods used, another point of distinction was their gathering of baseline data before onshore oiling occurred. Both Allan and O’Connell expressed their appreciation for fortunate conditions.
“We had technology available and were able to implement it in a timely fashion,” O’Connell said.
After collecting the data, Allan compiled a journal cataloguing their methods and results, receiving a lot of attention with a peer review discussion longer than the journal article itself. Although surrounded with cleanup efforts and research studies funded by BP, the group persevered to finish their study, marking one of the most comprehensive studies of carcinogen levels before and after the spill. Currently, Allan works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration but says that while the research has been sidelined for the time being, she would like to look at other chemicals of concern.
“After spending a vast majority of time on that project, I hope I will be able to continue with it in the future,” Allan said.
Jack Lammers, reporter
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