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Impacts of Oil Spills

Catastrophic Impacts of Oil Spills on the Health of Living Beings

Oil spills can have disastrous effects on the marine and coastal environment. The following article provides information about the various ill effects of oil spills on various environment, on the economy, and health of animals and plants.
Narayani Karthik
Last Updated: Mar 10, 2018
When we hear the word: oil spill, mind reckons about the most infamous and the worst oil spill in the history, that is The Gulf War oil spill. It was in the year 1990, when the Iraqi forces opened the valves of Sea Island oil terminal, releasing tons of the natural source of petroleum into the Persian Gulf. The event was recorded as one of the most disreputable oil spills in history. What followed was even more disturbing and ghastly after effects of these spills. Well, the consequences which were apparently not thought of, had a great impact on the economy, environment, and health of people world over.
Environmental Impact
An oil spill, be it intentional or accidental, has a deep impact on the environment. During an oil spill in the ocean, the viscous liquid spreads on the sea surface, forming a cohesive oil slick. The volatile organic compounds evaporate and about 20-40% of the mass is lost in this process. A very small percentage may also dissolve in water. What remains behind is oil residue, which over a period of time, forms a thick mousse on the water surface. Now some of the oil residue may congeal into sticky tar balls, which can be found floating in the water. And some of the oil waste disintegrates in sunlight (photolysis) and decomposes (bio degradation) into the sea waters.
This oil, when reaches the coastlines, further interacts with the beach sand, rocks, boulders, vegetation, and the terrestrial habitat of animals and plants, which is no less than contamination of the living habitat. One of the prime impacts of oil spills is toxic acid rains and erratic climate change, caused by oil vapors in the atmosphere.
The marine biome is worst affected during an oil spill. In fact, this is one of the prime ocean pollution causes. The oil slick on the water surface disrupts oxygen supply to marine life, causing marine plants to die slowly. The other aquatic life which feeds on this vegetation also perishes away gradually. Fish, clamps, mussels, and oysters accumulate toxins in their body, which further kills subsequent members in the food chain. Mammals like seals and otters, lose the water resistant compounds from their coats due to the oil. Birds like seagulls, birds that dive in the water, etc., find it difficult to fly due to the oil coating on their wings. Not only is the ecology disturbed in such cases, but major changes in weather are also observed, which are some of the major impacts on the environment.
Economic Impact
Apart from the environment, economy of a country also experiences a severe setback. Losing tons of oil, which is not only a natural source of energy but also a depleting source, has a severe impact on a country's economy. Besides this, the tourism industry also gets affected. This is because, after the spill, many recreational activities like scuba diving, boating, snorkeling, and fishing are prohibited until the clean up is complete.
The fisheries bear the maximum brunt of these oil spills. Fish and other sea food sources are contaminated, which pose a health hazard. Also, fishing areas remain closed until the clean up, as many of the fishing boats and equipment get damaged due to the oil slick. Also operations of industries like power plants, desalination plants, and nuclear central stations are affected badly, as they use sea water for many of their commercial activities.
Health Impact
Oil, i.e crude oil, contains dangerous chemical compounds like benzene, propylene glycol, polypropylene glycol butyl ether, and hydro-treated light petroleum distillates. And exposure to these compounds may be harmful to health. It has been observed that people working in such polluted areas experience severe headaches, back pain, dizziness, dermatitis, watery eyes, and strep throat. Also, the toxic compounds in oil damage the red blood cells in animals and cause severe respiratory problems. These compounds also have factored genetic toxicity, which is even more dangerous.
It is not just the air, but also the contaminated sea food which is a tangible reason for many cases of food poisoning near beaches where such accidents have occurred. In some cases, it has also been observed that the mental health of people living in these area gets severely affected as an aftermath of an oil spill. So, be it plant, animal, or human life, ill effects of an oil spill are lethal in nature. The most susceptible victims are aquatic life, vegetation by coastlines, and cleaners who clear up the debris.
Such man-made disasters that aggravate environmental pollution, can surely be averted to prevent such cataclysmal consequences.