Reverse Engineering Corexit 9500


If you dig a bit, there’s all kinds of interesting background material about the terrible disaster ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, a map of the thousands of rigs and tens-of-thousands of miles of pipelines. Some of the best infographics are from BP itself. And for when you can no longer stand the overwhelming sense of disaster, a fake twitter feed.

But this really caught my eye, from Nalco, the manufacturer of the oil dispersant Corexit 9500 which is being used both in unprecedented quantities and depths in the Gulf. Here’s how they cleverly describe the ingredients of their product, an ingredient list they protect as a trade-secret:

  1. One ingredient is used as a wetting agent in dry gelatin, beverage mixtures, and fruit juice drinks.
  2. A second ingredient is used in a brand-name dry skin cream and also in a body shampoo.
  3. A third ingredient is found in a popular brand of baby bath liquid.
  4. A fourth ingredient is found extensively in cosmetics and is also used as a surface-active agent and emulsifier for agents used in food contact.
  5. A fifth ingredient is used by a major supplier of brand name household cleaning products for “soap scum” removal.
  6. A sixth ingredient is used in hand creams and lotions, odorless paints and stain blockers.

That is one impressive bit of verbal agility, my complements to their staff writer(s). It would be a fun exercise some day to see what kinds of toxic sludge could be described in similar terms. But let’s see if we can figure out the exact ingredient list: here’s the MSDS for the substance. According to it Propylene Glycol is clearly one of the ingredients, as are “Distillates, petroleum, hydrotreated light” and “Organic sulfonic acid salt”. “Wetting agent” and “surface-acting” are both code words for a surfactant. A little knowledge of chemistry along with household product label reading might go a long way… Got insight? Add a comment here to describe what you find.


6/10 Update: Nalco released the full ingredient list and cheat sheet:

CAS # Name Common Day-to-Day Use Examples
1338-43-8 Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate Skin cream, body shampoo, emulsifier in juice
9005-65-6 Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs. Baby bath, mouth wash, face lotion, emulsifier in food
9005-70-3 Sorbitan, tri-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs Body/Face lotion, tanning lotions
577-11-7 * Butanedioic acid, 2-sulfo-, 1,4-bis(2-ethylhexyl) ester, sodium salt (1:1) Wetting agent in cosmetic products, gelatin, beverages
29911-28-2 Propanol, 1-(2-butoxy-1-methylethoxy) Household cleaning products
64742-47-8 Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light Air freshener, cleaner
111-76-2 ** Ethanol, 2-butoxy Cleaners

The * footnote indicates, essentially, “contains propylene glycol”.

The ** footnote indicates that this chemical is found only in Corexit 9527, not the one most commonly used in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup.

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