Oil Spills' Effects on Human Life

Oil spills may occur all around us. Since oil products include a lot of common fuels, it is obvious that oil spills may happen at high rates and in many locations, including residential areas. Surface oil spills are easy to identify and will leave visible traces such as oil stains, as well as other characteristic signs such as odors due to the vapors emitted by the spilled oil. The underground oil spills are more difficult to catch and yet may be more problematic (oil may reach groundwater more easily and travel with it). Both surface and underground oil spills have the potential to contaminate soils, sediment, water (groundwater and surface water bodies), and air (due to many volatile compounds emitted by the spilled oil into the air).

Oil spills have negative impacts on the residents of the affected areas. These effects can be aggravated by severe weather conditions. An example in this sense is the Murphy oil spill (due to the failure of a storage tank at the Murphy Oil USA refinery) that had particularly affected residential areas in Louisiana. This happened because of the contamination of flood waters following the levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

More than 1 million gallons of mixed crude oil were released from the Murphy refinery tank. The flooding enabled the spreading of spilled oil over larger areas, affecting about 1,700 homes in several residential neighborhoods.

Effects on the General Population

The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill.

Direct exposure to oil spills – occurs close to where people live or work and where they may come in contact with oil spill components:

Indirect exposure to oil spills - even when people live in places far from where the actual oil spill took place:

The main oil spill effects include a variety of diseases, negative economic impact, pollution with crude oil or petroleum products (distillates such as: gasoline, diesel products, jet fuels, kerosene, fuel oil, as well as heavy distillates like hydraulic and lubricating oils) and the aesthetic issues that affect the residents of the affected areas in multiple ways.

The negative economic impact is a major effect of oil spill pollution. It can affect the community where the oil spill occurred in a number of ways, among which the following are the most important:

The aesthetic and recreational impact is related to the visible effects of oil spill pollution (oil slick, sheens) appearing on coast waters, shoreline, and beaches, wetlands, etc. When more serious, the complete closure of such recreational areas may occur, at least temporary, until the spill is removed and the cleanup process ends.

Effects on Local Fishermen, Seamen and Ship Workers

Health problems due to the exposure to spilled oil or its volatile compounds may appear. Oil-spill pollution diseases are obviously not restricted to fishermen, affecting the population (residents) living in the affected area alike. 

Large oil spills, which usually occur in the oceans, affect commercial fishermen, seamen living in the affected areas and ship workers on the ships near the oil spill location. Fishermen are directly affected by large marine oil spills that contaminate the fish species swimming in the oil-polluted water, along with ecosystem livelihoods. Seamen can be affected if they bathe in contaminated water – for example swimming in a contaminated water stream. Even when an oil sheen may not be visible, dissolved oil contaminants may exist in the water. Last but not least, ship workers can inhale the fine particulate matter resulted from oil spills.

Fishermen and local ship workers can lose their jobs for extended periods of time due to government bans and restrictions on fishing. Until the oil spill is stopped and the clean-up of all oil pollution is completed, thousands of square miles may be closed. Being hard to predict and quantify in terms of dollar loss, this aspect is maybe the most subtle and dangerous one.

Fishing restrictions can generate economic drops in the living area, affecting fishermen and residents from the area alike. Even if a fisherman is willing to start a new job and a new life, there may be limited options for him. This is due to the general economic downturn as a result of oil spill pollution.

Commercial fishermen who own their own boats may lose them by:

Since all fishermen are fond of water and the daily activities related to fishing, psychological effects may appear in affected fishermen. It is quite common that this type of profession is transmitted from father to son and stays in a family for generations. When such family tradition is suddenly broken due to fishing restrictions as a result of large oil spills, the affected fishermen may never recover psychologically. They may go on with their lives, they may find other jobs, they may survive, but they may never be the same! This could develop serious social problems in the affected areas. Unfortunately, there are no remedies for those fishermen with family traditions except getting back to commercial fishing again. This, however, can take a while.

It should be noted that that the fishing restrictions in the areas affected by oil spill pollution are necessary since the consumption of contaminated fish could have serious health effects, especially due to the bioaccumulation of some chemicals in the fish. Such chemicals come from the compounds of oil (such as PAHs - polyaromatic hydrocarbons).