This paper presents a survey of marine toxicity and biodegradability data for surfactants used in the petroleum industry.
Surfactants are key chemicals in the formulation of products such as emulsifiers, demulsifiers, dispersants and inhibitors. They are also used directly as foaming and defoaming agents. Because they function at low concentrations, below 1%, and have a tendency to adsorb on solid surfaces, their long-term environmental effects are minimal. In applications such as cementing, surfactants cannot migrate into the environment and, thus, have no bioavailability.
The possibility of environmental contamination has caused well operators and regulatory agencies to require fish toxicity and persistence data for products used in servicing wells. This data has been organized for nonionic, anionic, cationic and amphoteric surfactants. Nonionic surfactants are toxic to fish at concentrations below 10 mg/L to over 2500 mg/L depending on their chemical compositions. Anionic surfactants are toxic to fish at concentrations under 1 mg/L to several hundred mg/L depending on their chemical compositions. Cationic and amphoteric surfactants are generally toxic to fish at concentrations below 50 mg/L.
Overall efforts are aimed at low toxicity and high biodegradability with the least compromise in product efficiency. This requires the continual testing and environmental evaluation of surfactants summarized herein.