Environmental Toxicology Researchers and Students Work to Assess Environmental Damage from Gulf Oil Spill

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi’s graduate program in environmental toxicology began just four years ago, but the massive oil spill this summer in the Gulf of Mexico promises to provide research opportunities to keep faculty and students busy for decades.


Kristine Willett is leading a group of studies into the biological effects of the oil spill on fish, shellfish and plant life along the Gulf Coast. UM photo by Robert Jordan.

Several UM researchers are studying the spill’s effects on the region’s fish, shellfish and plant life. The work has serious implications for tourism, fishing and other activities across the Gulf Coast region, said Kristine Willett, associate professor of pharmacology and graduate program coordinator for the Environmental Toxicology Research Program in the School of Pharmacy.

“I predict that the effects on the environment of the oil spill are going to be much longer-lasting than the environmental consequences of Katrina,” Willett said.

Environmental toxicology is the study of how various chemicals affect plants, animals and their ecosystems. The work spans many fields, so the Ole Miss Environmental Toxicology Research Program is an interdisciplinary group that includes chemists, biologists, pharmaceutical scientists and others.

The group generally has about a half-dozen research projects going at any given time, said Marc Slattery, UM professor of pharmacognosy and director of the program. Some recent projects include efforts to measure the effects of pesticides and pharmaceutical residues on the environment and a study of diseases affecting coral and other reef organisms.

Willett’s research specialty is studying the effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a group of chemicals that occur naturally in fossil fuels. PAHs are also present in products made from coal or crude oil, including asphalt and creosote.

Besides simply measuring the concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals in the water, the Ole Miss studies focus on several biological effects.

In one project, researchers place fish in seawater collected from the Gulf to measure toxicity. If the samples contain toxins in high enough concentrations, the fish may develop birth defects and may be unable to survive. Another study examines the effects of PAHs and oxygen levels in the water on oysters.

A third project, funded by an award to the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology at UM by the Northern Gulf Institute at Mississippi State University, focuses on determining the spill’s effects on coastal seagrasses.

Willett has been conducting toxicology studies in the Gulf of Mexico since the mid-1990s. Soon after coming to Ole Miss 10 years ago, she got funding through NIUST to study environmental stressors in the region. NIUST, which includes the Ocean Biotechnology Center and Repository, has an interest in the environmental health of the Gulf Coast, said Ray Highsmith, the institute’s executive director.

After Hurricane Katrina cut through the Gulf Coast in 2005, Willett and her colleagues began collecting monthly water and sediment samples within 10 days of the storm’s landfall.

“When Katrina occurred, it was clearly going to impact water quality along the coast,” Highsmith said. “We were lucky that Dr. Willett had been doing this kind of research and was able to respond immediately. Many others recognized the importance of Katrina but weren’t prepared or didn’t have the funding to respond. We had the right combination, which has ultimately led to important publications and a leadership role at meetings and symposia.”

Data from those samples – collected from 10 sites along the coast from Gulfport to Mobile, Ala. – have helped provide a benchmark against which to measure post-oil spill samples. Levels of PAHs in coastal waters increased only slightly after Katrina, but the researchers expect to see more significant increases in samples taken since the spill, Willett said.

“So far, we have not seen any overt toxicity, and by that, I mean death of fish and oysters in the waters we’re sampling,” she said. “However, that’s not to say you won’t see greater effects next year. If it’s reproduction that is compromised, for example, then it’s next year’s babies that will be affected.”

Another priority is to determine the environmental damage caused by dispersants used to break up the oil slicks, she said.

“That’s the big controversy in the regulatory field right now,” she said. “BP sprayed millions of gallons of dispersant in the Gulf, and the issue is that we don’t really know the effects all that dispersant will have on the environment. Did it increase the toxicity of the oil by making some chemicals in it more soluble? It may take a long time to answer these questions.”

Because of the magnitude of the spill, the Ole Miss research is vital to help engineers, policy-makers and the general public understand the potential environmental dangers, Highsmith said.

“Oil exploration and drilling is moving ever deeper worldwide,” he said. “It is critical that we learn as much as possible about this spill and how oil and oil-plus-dispersant behave and what impacts they have. Dr. Willett’s work will surely contribute to that.”

The work also is providing opportunities for several of the program’s six graduate students, who are helping with sampling and analysis, Slattery said. Program leaders are trying to get training grants to fund more student positions.

“In many ways, this event is going to stretch our imagination and our abilities to deal with it,” he said. “We’re going to be dealing with the effects for a long time, and there is a lot of work to be done. We’re going to need people who are interested and qualified to take this on.”

Students coming into the program now can stake a claim, Willett said.

“Students can come in here and start work that could carry them through their professional career right here in Mississippi, monitoring how the environment has been affected by this spill,” she said. “This could literally be their life’s work.”

For more information on the Environmental Toxicology Research Program at UM, go to http://www.pharmacy.olemiss.edu/etrp/index.html.