Oil from BP disaster contaminated ocean food chain, research confirms

Scientists have confirmed that oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster has entered the marine food chain.

Research by faculty and students at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. found crude oil from the 2010 spill in zooplankton (photo), small animals that play a critical role in the aquatic food web.

Dr. Siddhartha Mitra with ECU's Department of Geological Sciences and Dr. David Kimmel with the Department of Biology and Institute for Coastal Sciences and Policy worked with students to analyze samples of zooplankton collected from the Gulf of Mexico in August and September 2010. They identified the origin of the oil by examining polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, natural components of crude oil known to cause cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects.

"Our research helped to determine a 'fingerprint' of the Deepwater Horizon spill; something that other researchers interested the spill may be able to use," Mitra told ECU Now Blog. "Furthermore, our work demonstrated that zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Mexico accumulated toxic compounds derived from the well."

The ECU researchers worked with colleagues at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Oregon State University and the U.S. Geological Survey. The National Science Foundation funded the study, which appeared in Geophysical Research Letters.

Next, they plan to look at whether oil compounds from the BP disaster made it to the North Carolina coast.

Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico have been severely impacted by the 2010 oil spill, with fishermen reporting that catches are down dramatically since the disaster. At the same time, consumers are reluctant to consume Gulf seafood over concerns about contamination.

Photo of Temora turbinata, a type of zooplankton present in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, via the Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute.