Cleaning Up the Spill: The Pulse of the Planet daily radio program offers free legal online mp3 downloads, exploring the world of sound in nature, culture and science, with audio adventures, world music, extraordinary sound portraits, science diaries, and nature ring-tones; an amazing sonic experience.

Airdate: Jul 06, 2010
Scientist: Terry Hazen

Cleaning Up the Spill

Cleaning Up the Spill
Oil is a biological material, so when there's a spill, it may be best to let naturally occurring microbes clean it up.

JM: It may take years to fully realize the scope of the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only have millions of gallons of oil spewed into the water and coastal ecosystems, but according to Terry Hazen, head of the Ecology Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the use of chemical dispersants could make matters worse. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

TH: "Some people don't realize that oil is a biological material. It's made from plants and animals under temperature and pressure over millions of years. Adding dispersants or detergents, they could be more toxic than the oil itself is."

JM: Terry Hazen studies the role of microorganisms in the environment and their ability to clean up things like oil spills. He contends that aside from containment and physically mopping up the oil, it may be best to simply let the microbes do their thing.

TH: "There's natural seeps of oil all around the world, and they are not caused by man. And we know that because of all these seeps and because it's a natural product, that the oil is inherently biodegradable. In other words, if we have an oil spill anywhere in the world, within 72 hours we have a 4 or 5 order of magnitude increase in the total number of petroleum degrading bacteria that are in that water. There's a natural ability to degrade petroleum. So, we have to weigh our responses very carefully in terms of the whole ecosystem, in terms of the effects that it might have on endangered species, whether we use an aggressive treatment or not."

You can hear our complete interview with Terry Hazen at

Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.