Hesperian Health Guides

Hesperian Health Guides

Oil Refineries

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 22: Oil, Illness, and Human Rights > Oil Refineries


Oil refineries are factories where oil is made into gasoline and other fuels, and into materials such as asphalt and plastic. Oil refineries are a major source of air pollution for people who live near them and work at them. Chemicals in and around refineries cause cancer, reproductive harm, breathing problems such as asthma and emphysema, and birth defects, as well as other health problems such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, and stress. Refineries are also a major source of the gases that cause global warming.

Making refineries safer

Refineries do not have to cause such terrible health problems. Pollution could be prevented if oil companies would do all they could to prevent accidents and contain toxic gases and liquids at all stages of the refining process. If you and your community are working to make a refinery safer, your campaign might focus on some of these ideas:

Air pollution monitoring can identify problems and stop emergencies before they happen. The companies should monitor the air and respond to problems immediately. If they will not monitor pollution, communities can (see “The bucket brigade method”).

2 workers inspect a pipe.

Gas flares can be replaced with safer methods, such as recovering the gases for reuse.

Tanks used to store crude oil, gasoline, and other substances sometimes release toxic fumes when they are filled, emptied, or cleaned. These fumes can be contained with better equipment and procedures. Tanks and valves must be inspected and repaired regularly to prevent leaks into the air and the groundwater.

Tankers and barges filled with oil and gasoline release fumes into the air and leak liquids into water. Safety systems should be used at all times to prevent spills and toxic fumes. Tankers should have double- or triple-lined hulls to prevent spills.

Wastewater containing toxic chemicals often spills or leaks into groundwater. By building and maintaining wastewater systems, these problems can be avoided.

Dirty crude oil makes more waste and pollutes air and water, especially if a refinery was built to process cleaner, lighter forms of oil. Refining cleaner oil results in less pollution.


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