The Unknown Health Hazards of Oil Spills

The federal government offers no clear guidelines for chemical exposure from oil spills, leaving protection of the public in the hands of state and/or local officials when an accident does occur. There have been at least three oil spills from ruptured pipelines in the past three years, but each community handled each situation differently.

In June, 2010, 33,000 gallons of medium grade crude oil leaked from a ruptured pipeline into a Salt Lake City, Utah neighborhood. The oil leaked into Red Butte Creek and all through residential neighborhoods. There were no evacuations done. Many of the homes had windows opened, allowing fumes to seep into homes. These fumes can cause drowsiness and lethargy in people when exposed and many of the residents reported sleeping until noon that day.

A month later, in Marshall, Mich., a million gallons of heavy Canadian crude spilled into the Kalamazoo River. Four days later, officials finally issued a voluntary evacuation of residents.

In March of this year, 22 families were evacuated from their homes when 200,000 gallons of heavy crude leaked from a broken pipeline in Mayflower, Ark. However, residents who lived just blocks away in the same subdivision weren’t evacuated. The oil flowed and ended up in a lakeside community, where it is still being cleaned up. None of those residents were ever asked to evacuate.


Spilled crude oil is seen in a drainage ditch near evacuated homes in Mayflower, Arkansas. Spilled crude oil is seen in a drainage ditch near evacuated homes in Mayflower, Arkansas.


Also at issue is the lack of studies to determine the long term health dangers from exposure to oil fumes. Many people who were exposed complained of headaches, nausea and respiratory problems after the incidents, and medical experts don’t know what long-term effects may appear years later.

Crude oil contains over 1,000 chemicals, many of which have been classified as hazardous to humans. One of the most dangerous is benzene. Increased exposure to benzene has been shown to cause leukemia and neurological problems. None of the federal guidelines about benzene exposure covers exposure from oil spills.

Despite plans to expand the pipelines by more than 10,000 miles - many of those miles in populated neighborhoods -  there are still no plans for the government to set chemical guidelines at oil spills. Nor are there any plans to conduct studies of long-term health effects on those that have already been exposed.

Emergency Film Group’s Site Management & Control is part one of the Hazardous Materials: Managing the Incident series. The film includes information on preplanning to set up a systematic, coordinated approach to a hazmat accident; procedures for establishing command; guidelines for safe approach and positioning at a hazmat incident; establishing the perimeter and hazard control zones; and procedures for carrying out protective actions. To learn more, read here. . .

Previous article High Percentage of Chemical Accidents in Schools are Preventable