The biological damage that resulted from the use of ‘dispersants’ during the ‘Torrey Canyon’ oil spill (1967) indicated that the early dispersants were highly toxic and, perhaps, caused more damage than the oil alone. Despite subsequent improvements in the formulation of dispersants considerable apprehension at their use has persisted, with a number of governments placing severe restrictions on their use.

This apprehension is based largely on concerns about the toxicity of dispersants and consequently this has been much researched. Unfortunately, interpretation of some of the resulting data is difficult This is due to the lack of uniformity in experimental procedures, and also to difficulties in using toxicity data to determine the effect that dispersants and oils may have on coastal or inshore communities.

There is little information on the effect, and behaviour, of dispersed oil in the marine environment and this is particularly true when we consider long term effects and community recovery.

This paper reviews the information that is available from field and laboratory studies and challenges the validity of some entrenched attitudes to dispersants. Decisions regarding dispersant use must be made in consideration of a range of priorities and protection of one sensitive habitat may entail additional risk to another. Site specific priorities must by identified and options for dispersion considered with reference to all possible spill control strategies.

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