Dispersants are chemicals which are commonly used in various kinds of chemical spills, being chemical compounds that either absorb, congeal, or otherwise diminish the volume of chemical spilled and make that chemical easier to clean. However, dispersants are not often tested for their toxicity levels, only for their effectiveness in dispersing other compounds. BP is using these toxic dispersants in the Gulf in an attempt to deal with the ridiculously massive amount of oil their damaged fuel pipes leaked into the Gulf, citing dispersants as one of the only useful technologies they have for dealing with oil containment.
Their most infamous use so far is the massive use of toxic compaund Corexit in an attempt to break up the oil into its based chemical compunds, which would then render the oil easier to clean or absorb into the surrounding ecosystem; in fact, the Corexit wound up deepening the toxicology of the Gulf water and doing little to decrease the harmful elements of the oil BP was hoping to address.
Another reason BP uses dispersants is to make the oil breakup and sink to the bottom. That way no one knows just how much oil is out there. Don’t understand why the EPA lets them get away with it, when the opportunity to use large skimmers was ignored.
As an addendum to the great answer above, using dispersants can also be great PR for BP. Many people don’t know how harmful dispersants are, so BP has a chance to say that they’re really helping the clean-up effort by using dispersants. It makes the company look better to those who don’t know much about dispersants.
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