SOURCE: Forbes and Woods Hole Institute
DATE: November 3, 2020
SNIP: Fresh concerns have been raised by international experts about the type of oil spilled into the coral lagoons of Mauritius in August, and which continues to impact marine life in the region.

Leading international scientists from both France and the United States late last week highlighted the highly ‘complex,’ ‘unusual’ and ‘surprising’ traits of the oil, which they have never seen in a major oil spill before. They have urgently called for samples of the original oil from the Wakashio to be sent to laboratories for further testing.

Speculation continues to circulate about the mysterious oil that was in the Wakashio and which caused the environmental catastrophe in Mauritius this summer. It is likely to leave a devastating legacy for decades to come. Once more, questions are being raised about what could have been mixed with the ship fuel oil and why proper oil fingerprinting has still not been conducted.

In major oil spills, cleanups would never have begun unless the basic characteristics of the oil are known – a process that takes mere hours. Each oil behaves very uniquely in different climates and regions, and even the UN’s shipping regulator, the IMO, admitted in August that they did not know how this oil would behave in Mauritian waters given the Southern Hemisphere’s winter conditions. That would make it all the more important to run an analysis of the characteristics of the oil before beginning any cleanup operation. This would be even more important given the acute toxicity that has led to over 50 whales and dolphins dying along Mauritius’ coast in the days following the oil spill, and thousands of sea creatures turning up dead along Mauritius’ coast.

One new theory emerging is that this could be an experimental form of the new Plastics-to-Fuel oil. If that was the case, the health and environmental consequences could be devastating to those in Mauritius who were in contact with these experimental chemicals. This would be much more serious than just an oil spill as it involves hazardous new and unknown chemicals.

[T]he oil could have been mixed with plastics, forming a toxic new chemical cocktail. In recent years, there has been a series of experiments to mix plastics with oil to produce new forms of ‘Frankenstein fuels.’

These hybrid fuels if spilled, would be highly toxic – much more so than if it had been ordinary heavy oil ship fuel.

Plastics are hydrocarbons, that are contained in a different format – solids, rather than the thick, peanut-butter like consistency of heavy ship oil. Burning this plastic releases energy, in the same way that burning heavy fuel oil does.

However, it is the toxic cocktail of chemicals that are mixed in to break down the plastics, that would make this chemical soup particularly lethal if leaked.

6.3 billion tons of plastic have been generated since plastics were first invented 60 years ago in the aftermath of WW2 as a ‘miracle’ new product. It’s success became its downfall, with single use plastics encroaching into every aspect of day to day life, encouraging a ‘throw away’ consumer culture.

Many Governments have been struggling with what to do with millions of tons of surplus single use plastics that have been collected in recycling efforts.

The same oil companies that produce plastics also produce heavy ship fuel products, and have been under increasing pressure in the last few years to develop solutions for this mounting plastics waste problem.

The plastics industry, knowing that pressure has been mounting against single use plastics, have been funding lobby groups to push forward the notion of a ‘Plastics-to-Fuels’ economy.

These sophisticated industry lobby groups have estimated that this new Plastics-to-Fuels industry could be worth $9 billion a year (with an additional $18 billion capital expenditure), generating almost 40,000 jobs in the US alone. For example, Shell is building one of the largest petrochemical plants in the US in Pennsylvania, specifically focused on producing over 1 million tons of plastic pellets a year. Given the global move away from single use plastics, this is a particularly surprising and controversial investment.

However, advocates of Plastics-to-Fuels solutions have never addressed the serious environmental consequences of these new chemical formulas if ever one was to leak, as could have been the case in Mauritius (only an oil fingerprint test can validate this).

The thinking had been that with a surplus of plastics in the world, mixing plastics with ship fuel could both solve the mounting plastics problem, and also allow the oil industry to recoup some of their investments in multi-billion dollar, large plastic plants.

As ship fuel is so much denser than car fuel, the plastics could be broken down chemically and added to ship fuel as part of the mixture without much visible difference. However, this could lead to serious engine damage.

[T]he full horrors of the devastation that a ship fuel spill with dissolved plastic could unleash has never been evaluated. It would be a combination of two of the worst possible products to be released into a dense population center and an important biodiversity hotspot. International scientists working on Plastics-to-Fuels products confirmed how serious this would be, but none wanted to appear on the record.

The health consequences of plastic nurdles with a heavy oil spill would be too horrendous to imagine. In the ocean, plastics break down into micro or nano particles called nurdles. The size and shape of the nurdles make a huge impact on how toxic the tiny fragments of plastics could be. The smaller the pieces (to microscopic levels, invisible to the human eye), the greater the toxicity to a wider variety of animal and human organs. This is because there are more ways for these plastics particles to be absorbed into the human of wildlife bodies (the rate at which chemicals can be absorbed into human or animal bodies is called bioavailability).

One of the pathways for harmful toxins to enter the body is through the accumulation of chemicals toxins onto the surface of the microscopic plastic nurdles. Whereas previously, the bodies defense mechanisms would prevent such toxins entering the body, now, these toxins hitch a lift on the microscopic plastic beads and essentially get absorbed into the lungs and digestive systems of humans and wildlife.

There are two chemicals that are a particularly deadly combination: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs (that are found in ship oil) and Bisphenol A or BPA (that is commonly used for water bottles and food containers).

Both could be found in a hybrid fuel of plastics and oil. These both have serious health consequences such as cancer, lung, brain, heart diseases, as well as long term and complex impacts on the reproductive organs. It is important to understand their impact if they were to have been mixed to produce experimental ship fuel.

The potential impact of three toxic substances – ship oil, plastics and the additional chemicals added to the plastics and oil mixture – would make this oil spill a particularly lethal chemical cocktail soup, and would need many years to fully understand the impact.

See also:

First Detailed Oil Sample Analysis Completed from Mauritius Oil Spill:
DATE: October 29, 2020
SNIP: Now the first ultra-high-resolution analysis of an oil sample from Mauritius shows that the material is a complex and unusual mix of hydrocarbons—and even though some of the components in it may have already degraded or evaporated, what remains still gives it the ability to persist in the environment.

Analysis by WA-OIGC at Curtin and also confirmed by WHOI’s Organic Geochemistry Analysis Lab showed that the sample contained relatively low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known carcinogens in humans and animals. Although low, the levels of PAHs might accumulate in certain parts of the marine environment.