Jon Ballard gets upset today about the MSDSs for the dispersants being used to deal with the oil spill. I've commented over there, but it occurred to me I'd like to write a bigger post. But Ezra Klein has used some of the links I would have used and makes a point I would have made.
I don't have time to research the numbers, but it appears that this spill is not the worst ever, and we don't know that all the potentially bad things that might happen will happen. If they do, I'll write about them later.
At this point, as I said over at Newshoggers, the choice is not between oil pollution and no oil pollution, but what is done about the oil that is coming out of that well. I also haven't had time to research the effects of the dispersants on marine life, but what those dispersants can do is dilute the effects of the oil and whatever effects they carry along with them. If the sum total of this is less than the sum total of not treating the oil, then we have a relative win.
Why don't we have better prevention and mitigation? Part of that is the anti-regulatory movement of the past thirty years or so. Part of it is money. Your gasoline will cost more as we add these things in. Part of it is the infrequency of these events, which puts the development of mitigation schemes, like those skimmer boats I described in a comment here, at a low priority for government and lower for industry spending. And it's possible that if the government tried to develop such things, someone in industry would holler that the government was unfairly competing with private industry and would get his congressman on it.
So that's why we don't have better prevention and mitigation.
As to the MSDSs, we have to look at concentrations of stuff and relative risks. I've said some about this over at Newshoggers, but I think that much of this caution is overdone. I decided that at the very beginning of the movement toward MSDSs when I read the label of a bottle of potassium chloride intended for laboratory use. It listed all sorts of dreadful outcomes, up to and including death, if you ate teaspoonfuls of the stuff. It was being used as a diluent for salt ("light salt") at the time, to reduce the amount of sodium people ingest with their food. One of the first things you learn in chemistry lab is don't eat anything. Don't bring your lunch or drinks into the lab. Don't eat the chemicals.
So here is a label that assumes someone is going to eat teaspoonfuls of potassium chloride. Heck, we don't eat teaspoonfuls of salt, which is likely to have similar effects. Safety labels no longer tell me anything, I thought.
It's not just a matter of dispersants being bad for marine life in the lab. It's a tradeoff. And if we're going to use gasoline and want to pay the lowest price for it, then BP isn't wrong to cut costs where they can. This is the reason we need a strong and rational regulatory apparatus, to weigh the risks and costs as objectively as possible.