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How Persistent and Bioavailable Are Oxygenated Deepwater Horizon Oil Transformation Products?

Christoph Aeppli, Robert F. Swarthout, Gregory W. O’Neil, Samuel D. Katz, Deedar Nabi, Collin P. Ward, Robert K. Nelson, Charles M. Sharpless, Christopher M. Reddy
Environmental science & technology 2018 v.52 no.13 pp. 7250-7258
analytical methods, aromatic compounds, beaches, chemical composition, environmental assessment, environmental fate, hydrocarbons, hydrophobicity, models, oil spills, oils, risk assessment, sand, toxic substances, water solubility, Gulf of Mexico
About half of the surface oil floating on the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was transformed into oxygenated hydrocarbons (OxHC) within days to weeks. These OxHC persist for years in oil/sand aggregates in nearshore and beach environments, and there is concern that these aggregates might represent a long-term source of toxic compounds. However, because this OxHC fraction is a continuum of transformation products that are not well chemically characterized, it is not included in current oil spill fate and effect models. This challenges an accurate environmental risk assessment of weathered oil. Here, we used molecular and bulk analytical techniques to constrain the chemical composition and environmental fate of weathered oil samples collected on the sea surface and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. We found that approximately 50% of the weathering-related disappearance of saturated and aromatic compounds in these samples was compensated by an increase in OxHC. Furthermore, we identified and quantified a suite of oxygenated aliphatic compounds that are more water-soluble and less hydrophobic than its presumed precursors, but only represent <1% of the oil residues’ mass. Lastly, dissolution experiments showed that compounds in the OxHC fraction can leach into the water; however, the mass loss of this process is small. Overall, this study shows that the OxHC fraction is prevalent and persistent in weathered oil/sand aggregates, which can act as a long-term source of dissolved oil-derived compounds.