Maryland's shores are likely to be spared any direct impact from the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a panel of government scientists assured members of the state's congressional delegation Thursday.
Senators and congressmen heard top officials of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration repeat earlier assurances that the odds of oil landing on state beaches or polluting the Chesapeake Bay are extremely remote.
"It's very, very unlikely that any liquid oil is going to make it this far north," said Steve Murawski, NOAA's director of scientific programs and chief science adviser.
Surface currents around the blown-out BP well, which continues to spew thousands of gallons of crude daily, are keeping the oil slick away from the Atlantic. If that changed, any oil that traveled the 1,800 miles to Maryland would arrive in the form of very weathered tar balls, which aren't particularly toxic, Murawski said.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, FDA's principal deputy commissioner and a former Baltimore health commissioner, got a skeptical response when he played down the environmental dangers of chemical dispersants being used to fight the spill.
"It doesn't give me a lot of comfort when you use the word 'unlikely,' " said Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who described himself as deeply troubled by the potential risks posed by spraying dispersants in unprecedented volumes on the oil, including deep under the surface. Cardin said he feared the chemicals could find their way into the food chain or be carried to states such as Maryland by migratory fowl.
Sharfstein, whose agency is working with NOAA to protect the safety of seafood harvested and shipped from the Gulf, said many of the active ingredients in the dispersants are used in toothpaste, lipstick and other cosmetic products. He said they are biodegradable and would be diluted by the ocean.
NOAA has begun tests that include exposing adult fish to the dispersants. Among the potential concerns is any impact on the eggs or larvae of bluefin tuna, which spawn in the area where the Deepwater Horizon rig is located.
Murawski said the environmental effects of the dispersants on biodiversity in the Gulf are among the unknowns that are now being studied. Some environmental groups have criticized the use of the chemicals and warn that they might do more harm than the oil they are designed to disperse.
"There's a big question mark. We all know we have a Hobson's choice here," said Murawski. "There's no good solution here right now."
Officials have said that even if the oil comes up the East Coast, prevailing currents would push it out to sea off North Carolina.
Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who organized the meeting, has scheduled a July 15 Senate hearing to explore the safety of dispersants.