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Oil Pollution

Oil Pollution

Oils are chemical substances always in a liquid state at room temperature and are insoluble in water. There are many different kinds of oil, from cooking oils (e.g., olive oil) to mineral oils (e.g., paraffin baby oil). For our purposes, we are only concerned with the oil we commonly use as fuel, known as petroleum or crude oil. From this point onward, when "oil" is mentioned, we are referring to petroleum.

This form of oil is a fossil fuel formed from the fossilised remains of dead organisms. In addition to its use as a fuel source, oil is used to manufacture many materials, including plastic. Our society is hopelessly dependent on oil, with an estimated 16 million cubic metres used globally daily. Oil consumption has and continues to, directly and indirectly, contribute to climate change, global conflicts, and environmental pollution. In the following, we will learn about oil pollution- what it is and how it affects the environment, and look at some examples.

Insoluble: Any substance that cannot be dissolved in water.

What is crude oil pollution?

Crude oil pollution occurs when the liquid form of petroleum leaks into an ecosystem due to anthropogenic (human) causes.

Oil pollution most commonly occurs in the form of oil spills.

Oil spills release a large amount of oil into marine and coastal waterways, with devastating consequences. These spills may come from oil tankers, oil rigs and offshore platforms and usually significantly damage local wildlife and economies, particularly those dependent on fishing.

One of the largest oil spills in history occurred in April of 2010 off the coast of Louisiana when the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig suffered a deadly explosion that cost the lives of 11 people and spilt nearly 800 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing large amounts of wildlife, covering beaches in fat, and severely damaging the local fishing and tourism economy.

Oil Pollution Figure 1: Oil Spill StudySmarterFigure 1: Oil spill cleanup. Source: Wiki Commons, Public Domain

What are the causes of oil pollution?

There are several potential causes of oil pollution, with oil spills being one of the most common. Up to half of all oil spills can be attributed to human error, such as:

  • collisions between tankers and other vessels

  • and accidents related to fatigue or inadequate training.

This is especially true of oil spills involving tankers, which are overwhelmingly (≈80%) caused by human error.

Many spills are also caused by technical problems, such as failing or malfunctioning equipment. Oil pollution can also come from terrestrial sources, such as motor vehicles and runoff oil, which may leak into rivers, wetlands, and, eventually, the ocean.

What are the effects of oil pollution?

Oil pollution has a wide variety of adverse effects on the environment, wildlife, and humans. Oil pollution affects everything from the soil and water to the living organisms that rely on the ecosystems for survival. The following are just some of the ways in which oil pollution negatively affects ecosystems.

Effects of oil pollution on soil

There are several ways that oil pollution can impact soil. Since the soil quickly absorbs oil, it can alter its permeability and change its natural composition. The oil then kills many naturally occurring microorganisms in the ground, resulting in the proliferation of oil-resistant microorganisms. All of this results in a soil that renders natural vegetation and agricultural crops more challenging to grow and less resistant to diseases and pests. Furthermore, negative health consequences can occur once animals (including humans) ingest these plants. Oil has carcinogenic qualities that can have a toxic effect on living organisms.

Carcinogenic: Any substance that can cause cancer in living organisms.

Effects of oil pollution on water

It is estimated that around 3.8 million litres of oil contaminate the world's oceans annually. Since oil is insoluble and cannot dissolve in water, it forms a sludgy mass that suffocates marine life, such as fish. It blocks sunlight from penetrating the ocean's surface, killing ocean plants that rely on photosynthesis. In addition to oceans, oil contaminates freshwater lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

In developing countries with limited access to clean and treated drinking water, oil-contaminated waterways constitute a significant health concern.

Effects of oil pollution on wildlife

Oil has immediate and long-term negative impacts on ecosystems and the wildlife species that reside within them.

  • On a physical level, oil can accumulate in the feathers and wings of birds, rendering them unable to fly.

  • Oil can also suffocate and poison wildlife, in addition to causing many other health issues.

  • Oil also destroys the habitat that nature depends upon through soil degradation and vegetation loss.

When oil seeps into the soil and kills microorganisms, it depletes the ecosystem of its primary producers. Since primary producers are the base trophic level in an ecosystem, losing these species causes problems in all higher trophic levels, even apex predators.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, wildlife in the coastal regions of the southeastern United States, particularly Louisiana, suffered immensely. Coastal wetlands were inundated with oil sludge, resulting in greatly reduced productivity. Many animals treated by rescuers did not survive due to being heavily covered in oil sludge, including many birds and even some American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).

This species is typically hardy enough to survive significant anthropogenic pollutants.

Effects of oil pollution on humans

Oil pollution can negatively impact the health and economies of human populations. The contamination of drinking water is perhaps the most direct way oil spills may affect human health.

  • Some short-term effects of drinking oil-contaminated water may include:

    • Gastrointestinal upset, diarrhoea, vomiting, and throat irritation.

  • In the long term, drinking oil-contaminated water can increase the risk of cancer development and cause problems with the immune system.

Oil pollution also damages economies through the loss of tourism in areas affected by oil spills (e.g., beaches covered in oil sludge) and the loss of income from industries dependent on marine resources within the affected area (e.g., the shrimping industry of the southeastern United States.)

Controlling oil pollution

There are several ways of controlling oil pollution and mitigating the damage it causes. The following are just a few ways to control oil pollution.

Recycling used oil

Used oil is a major contaminant of the Earth's waterways, and one way to minimise this contamination is by recycling and reusing oil rather than obtaining new oil.

While used oil requires specialised handling techniques, as it may contain toxic substances picked up during regular use, it retains the same abilities it had before its use.

Used oil also requires less energy to produce and lowers the detrimental environmental impact.

This used oil can be reused as fuel, for lubrication, and much more.

Proper maintenance of equipment

Preventable accidents cause most oil spills, and ensuring the proper maintenance of the associated equipment is vital to its prevention. This includes:

  • better and more thorough training of technicians,

  • frequent inspections,

  • and the implementation of computerised maintenance management systems (CMMS) that will continuously assess equipment for potential problems.

Improved tanker design

Another way to mitigate oil pollution is by using more soundly built tankers, thus minimising the chance of an oil spill.

  • Double hulls, for example, create extra space between the oil cargo and the environment.
  • At the same time, twin engines allow tankers to avoid potential dangers even in the event of a single-engine failure.
  • Bund walls on land provide oil-proof protective barriers that can sustain high-pressure levels.

Example of oil pollution

The Sundarbans is the world's largest mangrove swamp, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the Bay of Bengal and consisting of a massive delta formed by the Brahmaputra, Meghna, and Padma rivers.

The Sundarbans mangroves span the southeastern portion of India's West Bengal state and the southwestern part of Bangladesh's Khulna division.

The mangroves provide vital habitat for many globally and locally threatened species, including the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris), saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), and Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica). In addition to being a haven for wildlife, the mangroves provide an essential source of livelihood for the roughly three million people living in the area.

Oil Pollution Figure 2: Sundarbans StudySmarterFigure 2: Location of the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal along the border between India and Bangladesh. Source: Wiki Commons, Public Domain

On 9th December 2014, a catastrophic oil spill occurred in the Bangladeshi portion of the Sundarbans when the Southern Star VII tanker collided with another vessel and spilt all of its 350,000 litres of oil into the mangroves. Over less than a month, oil from the spill had contaminated over 500 square kilometres of the Sundarbans, with levels of contamination reaching between 30 and 170 times the maximum safe level, seeping into the forest floor and killing large numbers of essential microorganisms. In addition, in the days following the spill, dead dolphins and otters were found, as well as oil-slicked crocodiles. The spill also hit fish stocks particularly hard, losing vital financial and food resources for the local human population.

Since the spill, dolphins have reportedly become rare within the mangroves, and saltwater crocodile hatchlings have been poisoned. Even years later, wildlife in the Sundarbans has yet to recover fully.

Oil Pollution - Key takeaways

  • Oil pollution occurs when the liquid form of petroleum leaks into an ecosystem due to anthropogenic (human) causes.

  • Oil pollution most commonly occurs in the form of oil spills, which result in the release of a large amount of oil into marine and coastal waterways, with devastating consequences.

  • Up to half of all oil spills can be attributed to human error, such as collisions between tankers and other vessels.

  • Oil has immediate and long-term negative impacts on ecosystems and the wildlife species that reside within them.

  • Oil pollution negatively impacts the health and economies of human populations through the contamination of drinking water and the damage to the tourism and marine resource industries.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oil Pollution

Oil pollution occurs when the liquid form of petroleum leaks into an ecosystem due to anthropogenic (human) causes.

Oil has both immediate and long term negative impacts on ecosystems and the wildlife species that reside within them. Oil pollution also has negative impacts on both the health and economies of human populations, through the contamination of drinking water and the damage to the tourism and marine resource industries.

Oil pollution most commonly occurs in the form of oil spills, but can also come from terrestrial sources, including motor vehicles and industry runoff. 

The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana coastline and the December 2014 oil spill in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh are both examples of oil pollution.

Oil seeps into the soil, killing microorganisms, damaging vegetation and reducing ecosystem productivity. Oil can also suffocate and poison wildlife.

Final Oil Pollution Quiz

Question

Oils are _____, which means they cannot be dissolved in water.

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Answer

Insoluble

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Question

Crude oil is a fossil fuel known as _________.

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Answer

Petroleum 

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Question

Humans consume an estimated _________ cubic metres of petroleum per day.  

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Answer

16 million

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Question

Oil pollution occurs when the liquid form of petroleum leaks into an ecosystem due to _______ causes.

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Answer

Human

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Question

Oil pollution most commonly occurs in the form of _______, which result in the release of a large amount of oil into marine and coastal waterways

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Answer

Oil spills

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Question

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in _________ of petroleum spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Answer

nearly 800 million litres

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Question

True or False: Oil spills only affect wildlife and the environment, they have minimal impact on the local human economy.

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Answer

False

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Question

What fraction of oil spills are attributed to human error?

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Answer

Up to 50%

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Question

Approximately what percentage of oil tanker spills are due to human error?

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Answer

80%

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Question

Oil has _______ qualities that can cause cancer in organisms.

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Answer

carcinogenic

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Question

It is estimated that around ___________ of oil contaminate the world's oceans annually. 

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Answer

3.8 million litres

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Question

When oil seeps into the soil and kills microorganisms, it is depleting the ecosystem of its _____________. 

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Answer

primary producers

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Question

True or False: Oil contaminated waterways represent a threat to human health.

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Answer

True

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Question

Levels of oil contamination in the Sundarbans reached __________ the maximum safe level.

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Answer

30 to 170 times

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Question

How might oil spills negatively affect local economies?

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Answer

Decreased tourism due to oil contaminated beaches and decreased marine resources (such as shrimp) for local industries. 

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Question

True or False: The loss of primary producers only affects the lower trophic levels and does not impact organisms, such as apex predators, at higher trophic levels.

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Answer

False

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