Hesperian Health Guides

Oil Spills

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

Wherever there is oil, there are oil spills. Ships and trucks have accidents, and pipelines leak. It is the oil companies’ responsibility to prevent spills and to clean them up when they happen.

There is a saying: “Oil and water do not mix.” But when oil spills in water, toxic chemicals from the oil do mix with the water and stay there for a long time. The thicker part of the oil spreads over the surface and prevents air from getting into the water. Fish, animals, and plants that live in the water are not able to breathe. When oil spills in water, the chemicals left behind may make the water unsafe to drink, even after the oil we can see is removed.

When oil spills on land, it destroys the soil by choking out the air and killing the living things that make soil healthy. Something similar happens when oil gets on our skin or the skin of animals. The oil covers the skin and blocks air from getting in. Toxins from the oil also enter the body through the skin, causing illness.

Do oil and water mix?

This activity can help people understand the effects of an oil spill in water.
Time: 1½ hours
Materials: Clear glass jar, water, vegetable oil

  1. Fill a jar with water. Add 2 spoonfuls of vegetable oil. Shake the jar to mix the oil and water. Leave the jar alone for an hour.

  2. Return to the jar. You will see that most of the oil has settled on top. Vegetable oil is harmless, but imagine the jar is a river with an oil spill. Begin a group discussion about the effects this might have. Imagine fish trying to survive in this river with a layer of oil, blocking air and sunlight. Imagine what happens to birds trying to hunt for fish in the river.
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  3. Use a spoon to try to skim oil off the surface. After you have skimmed off as much oil as you can, see if some bubbles of oil remain in the water. This is oil that sinks into the water. Consider the old saying, “Oil and water do not mix.” Discuss with the group what happens when oil and water do mix.

Water pollution from oil

It is very harmful to drink water that has oil in it. The water that comes out of the ground when oil is drilled is also very toxic.

Filters that clean oil and toxic chemicals out of water are very costly. Boiling water, using solar disinfection, and adding chlorine to water (see Make Water Safe to Drink) kill germs but cannot get rid of oil pollution.

Adding chlorine actually makes oil pollution worse because it combines with some of the chemicals called “phenols” to form an even more toxic chemical called “chlorophenol.”

If an oil spill has been cleaned up, even if you do not see oil in the water, the water is still probably not safe. Many of the toxins in oil settle into the water and stay for a long time. The only way to be sure water is safe is to have it tested.

How to keep safe after an oil spill

A woman speaks as she leads a child away from a contaminated pond.
Let's go get water at your uncle's farm instead.
  • Avoid contact with the oil. Keep children and animals away from the spill. If possible, put a fence around the area and post a warning sign.
  • Use a source of water upstream from the spill. Even if you have to walk a long way, it is worth it to prevent health problems. Where oil has spilled, rainwater may be the only safe water to drink.
  • Avoid eating animals that live in water such as crabs, shrimp, and snails near the spill and areas downstream. They soak up toxins like sponges.
  • Avoid bathing in affected water. If somebody falls in the water, they should wash right away with strong soap and clean water.
  • Notify neighbors, government officials, the press, and NGOs that are concerned about health and the environment.
  • Teach people about the dangers of oil at schools and community gatherings.

Cleaning up oil spills

Cleaning up spills is the responsibility of the oil company. Companies claim they can clean up any spill. But the truth is, even with the best equipment, oil spills and oil spill clean-ups are very dangerous and difficult. In most cases, people affected by spills have no protective equipment.

3 men in protective clothing speak as they shovel sludge into buckets.
The company said this toxic sludge is good for plants.
You won’t be able to eat anything that grows here, not for a million years!
Whenever there are spills, on water or on land, the chemicals in the oil poison people, animals, plants, land, and water.

The oil company should start clean-up as soon as spills happen. Because toxins from oil settle into water and soil, removing the black sludge from the surface does not always remove the source of harm.

Oil spill clean-up makes workers sick

When an oil tanker named Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska in 1989, it spilled millions of gallons of oil into the water. The spill killed countless animals and birds, and destroyed the local fishing industry. The oil caused damage that continues to this day.

The Exxon company hired 10,000 workers to clean up the oil and rescue the animals. Using the best equipment, they worked 12 to 16 hours a day for many months cleaning the spill and trying to prevent the oil from spreading. They wore protective clothing to keep the oil off their skin and masks to keep them from breathing toxic fumes.

At the end of each day, the workers removed their raincoats, boots, and gloves. The suits and the workers themselves were cleaned with chemical solvents. The next day they put the suits back on and went back to work. But despite the protective gear, many workers complained of coughing, headaches, dizziness, and runny noses. “At night, in the bunks, everyone was coughing. It was like a TB ward,” said one worker. 10 years later, many of the workers have developed memory loss, lung damage, and cancer. Hundreds of them have died.

Exxon was sued to pay for the damage. But all these years later, they have paid nothing at all.

What to do in case of an oil spill

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Some materials that absorb oil are straw, sawdust, ground corncobs, feathers, clay, wool, and sand.

When oil spills or leaks from a storage tank, it should be contained and absorbed. Once it is absorbed, the oil and any material used to absorb it must be removed and disposed of safely, for example, in a pit lined with concrete, so they will not pollute the groundwater.

Oil spills on water can also be contained and absorbed, but this is difficult without special equipment. Anyone who enters the water to clean up spilled oil can get very sick. Trying to remove oil from water by collecting it in buckets is dangerous and does not work well. With proper equipment and training, this is how oil spills in water are cleaned up:

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Oil is kept in place with a boom, a kind of floating fence held by anchors, or tied to boats or to things on shore. The boom prevents most of the oil from floating away. A machine called a skimmer takes oil off the surface of the water and sucks it through a hose into a waste storage tank.
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Oil that remains in the water is absorbed with materials like sawdust, peat moss, feathers, or clay. After as much of the oil as possible is skimmed from the surface, soaked up, and removed, what is left is set on fire and burned away. Burning the oil makes toxic smoke, but may be better than leaving oil in the water.

If you clean up an oil spill, protect yourself!

Whether you and your community have to clean an oil spill on your own or are paid by an oil company to clean an oil spill, you should know:

  • Oil is always toxic. Touching or breathing it can lead to serious health problems.
  • Solvents used to clean oil are also toxic and can lead to serious health problems.
  • High-pressure hoses commonly used to spray oil off of rocks cause oil to vaporize (become a gas) and make the oil easy to breathe in. This can lead to problems of the throat and lungs.
  • The company responsible for the spill and for cleaning it up should provide you with protective clothing, including a body suit, gloves, boots, respirator, safety glasses, and a head covering.
  • Working long hours in oil-contaminated water or being exposed to solvents can cause serious health problems. It is best to work fewer hours and to rest away from toxic fumes between work shifts.

Make a safety plan for emergencies

If you live where there is oil drilling or refineries, work with your community to make a safety plan to protect everyone’s health in case of emergencies such as flares or spills.

Map your community

Part of a safety plan is to know where problems may break out and where the resources are to prevent and recover from an emergency. Mapping the community can help.

People gather around a table and draw a map.

Together with others from the community, draw a map of where you live. Include oil wells, drilling sites, pipelines, waste pits, refineries, and other sources of pollution. Also, include places where you get water, grow or collect food, and keep animals, as well as community resources.

Talk about where there have been spills, accidents, or pollution in the past. What was the impact? Mark the map where you have seen the effects of oil spills. Then make a list of your available resources and a plan for how to use them in case of an emergency.

Meet and make your plan

A woman speaks.
  • An upstream water source or a community water tank.

  • Change stored water every 6 to 12 months.

  • Trucks or other vehicles to get people safely away.

  • Choose 1 or more people to alert nearby communities, officials, and the media in an emergency.

  • A school, church, or other meeting place.

  • Telephone or radio to call for help, and alert officials and media.

  • Telephone numbers for hospitals, clinics, and health workers.

  • Joseph

  • Sala, Naisha, Njuma

  • Ahmed's taxi,
    Kwame's truck

How many of us have mobile phones we can use in an emergency?

Restoring land damaged by oil

Oil spills cause severe long-term harm to land. If the oil is cleaned up and land is left to recover for many years, it may be possible to restore land to make it fertile again. But it will take a long, long time. (See also "Restoring Land and Planting Trees" and “Restoring damaged land.”)

A new way to clean spilled oil?
Mushrooms growing on oil.

After a diesel fuel spill in the USA, different companies were asked to see what they could do to clean it up. The soil where the oil spilled was mounded up in piles, and each company was given one pile to work with.

One of the companies was a small business devoted to growing and selling edible mushrooms. The man who ran the business had seen mushrooms growing after forest fires and other natural disasters. He believed mushrooms had the power to restore damaged land. His team went to work filling their oil-soaked pile with the root fibers of oyster mushrooms. Then they covered the pile and waited.

When they uncovered the pile 6 weeks later, what they saw was amazing. The soil was covered with huge mushrooms, some as big as 30 cm across. They took the mushrooms and soil to a laboratory and tested them. The mushrooms had no trace of oil or any of the toxic chemicals that oil contains. The mushrooms had completely cleaned the soil!

The exciting part of the story is what happened next. After the mushrooms matured, flies came in and laid eggs in them. Maggots appeared, birds flew in, and other small animals began to eat the mushrooms and the maggots. The birds and animals carried in seeds, and plants started growing. The polluted pile of dirt was transformed into a rich garden of life.

This method worked in the experiment, but no one knows yet if it will work as well in all conditions and all places. More work needs to be done to find out if mushrooms or other “natural remedies” can clean up oil spills.