Yes – they can be harmful to fish eggs, larvae, shrimp and more. The chemicals are toxic – but are less toxic than the oil, which is why they were used. They will have an effect on the water and the marine life and the environment overall for quite a long time to come.
The dispersant that was sprayed by BP over the oil spill in the Gulf is called Corexit, and contains propylene glycol, 2-butoxyethanol, and sulfonic acid salt. Some of these ingredients are chemical already present in cleaners and cosmetics, and all are considered to biodegrade easily and avoid bioaccumulation up the marine life food chain. However, this application of these chemicals is the first of its scale and method of application, so the long-term environmental effects are unknown.
It is true that the dispersants are considered to be less toxic than the oil that has been released into the gulf waters. However, the intended impact of the dispersants is not to make the oil go away, but rather to divert it away from the human and animal life on the coastlines. Instead, the oil is redirected away from shore toward the ocean floor. As such, it is a mitigating measure only from a certain perspective, rather an any kind of cure.
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