'Ban chemical that makes seabirds sticky'
Conservationists have called for a tightening of laws governing the disposal of hazardous substances at sea, after a chemical spill which killed hundreds of birds.
The mystery substance behind the incident – identified by Plymouth University scientists as oil additive polyisobutene (PIB) – is thought to be responsible for around 4,000 bird deaths worldwide.
The RSPB confirmed this week that the latest incident along a 200-mile stretch of coast into Cornwall had affected 294 birds, mostly guillemots, with more feared dead.
Yesterday the group said the non-toxic substance, which is used in chewing gum, adhesive tape and cosmetics, can legally be dumped.
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It said PIB is tested under laboratory conditions which don't take into account its transformation into a "sticky goo" when mixed with sea water.
Alec Taylor, the RSPB's marine policy officer, called on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to urgently review how it classifies PIB as a hazard.
He said: "Given that this substance is used for making chewing gum, adhesive tape and cosmetics, millions of people safely come into contact with it every day.
"However, it's when it mixes with sea water that this chemical can become lethal for seabirds, covering them in a sticky goo and preventing them from flying, feeding and ultimately surviving."
PIB is believed to have been responsible for over 4,000 seabird deaths in at least four incidents – in 1994 off Merseyside and before that in 1998 and 2010 off the Dutch coast.
But despite this, the RSPB says that it is only given a low category Z rating.
Jim Portus, chairman of the South West Fish Producer's Organisation and formerly an officer on chemical tankers, said no responsible captain or chief officer would wash out tanks into the open sea.
He said residue should be taken to a port, such as Rotterdam, for disposal.
But with thousands of vessels each year carrying such cargo between the United States and Europe, the chances of pinpointing the offender are slim.
"It may be that it came from drums washing off a ship during storms then breaking open. It will be interesting to see if any wash up," Mr Portus added.
"If it was a deliberate act by an insensitive captain then the law can be brought to bear, but if it is flotsam rather than jetsam then the RSPB calling for the outlawing of tank cleaning won't matter a jot."