HomeTechnology4 Ways an Oil Spill Can Lead to a Public Health Crisis

4 Ways an Oil Spill Can Lead to a Public Health Crisis

Oil spills are a menace to the environment. At the same time, it also poses a great threat to all living things. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US waters experience thousands of oil spills every year. Most of these spills are small and insignificant. However, some of them are quite big and can be very harmful to the environment and living beings in general.

Sometimes, these spills are so big that they can cause nationwide health crises. In case you’re wondering how that might happen, keep reading to find out. 

#1 Air Quality Deterioration

One of the most immediate and visible health risks associated with oil spills is the deterioration of air quality. When the oil from a spill evaporates, it can form volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which, in turn, leads to more dangerous smog. The smog, alongside the VOCs themselves, can cause serious respiratory problems.

In addition to VOCs, oil spills release fine particulate matter (PM) into the air. These tiny particles can enter our lungs and bloodstream. This, in turn, causes cardiovascular problems, aggravates respiratory conditions, and increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Communities near oil spill sites can experience a sudden surge in respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, posing a severe public health threat.

As reported by Al Jazeera, air pollution is cutting the life expectancy of South Asians by five years. The situation might soon end up being the same for other countries across the world. Oil spills will only worsen this situation and lead to more health problems. We’ll talk about this more in a later section.  

#2 Contaminated Drinking Water

Oil spills can also contaminate drinking water sources, putting communities at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. When oil reaches rivers, lakes, or groundwater, it can contaminate drinking water supplies.

This contamination may include not only the oil itself. It can also include the toxic substances found in crude oil, such as benzene, toluene, and xylene, which are known carcinogens. Exposure to these contaminants through drinking water can lead to a range of health issues, including cancer, organ damage, and neurological problems. 

Camp Lejeune saw a devastating case of water contamination a few decades ago. According to TorHoerman Law, leaks from underground tanks and businesses found their way into the local groundwater supply. Although not oil spills, these leaks did contain toxic chemicals that led to many in the area developing cancer.

The symptoms of Camp Lejeune water contamination are somewhat similar to water contamination through oil spills. It’s, therefore, easy to see that oil spills can contaminate water at the same level as various other toxic chemicals. 

#3 Direct Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

In the aftermath of an oil spill, cleanup efforts often require workers and volunteers to come into direct contact with toxic substances. These individuals can be exposed to chemicals through skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion, leading to a host of health problems. The toxic effects of exposure can range from skin irritation and nausea to more severe conditions like chemical burns.

According to The Guardian, chemical exposure might not lead to instant health problems in workers. However, over the years, the symptoms of these health problems become more visible. In many cases, workers also end up with various types of cancer.

The risks are not limited to the spill cleanup workers. Nearby residents may also be exposed to toxic chemicals, especially if they live near the spill site. Evacuations and shelter-in-place orders may be necessary to protect the public from direct exposure, further disrupting lives and causing psychological stress.

#4 Disruption of Food Chains

According to the US National Ocean Service, oil spills disrupt aquatic ecosystems, affecting marine life and the food chains that sustain coastal communities. When oil contaminates the water, it can have devastating consequences for fish, shellfish, and other marine organisms. These contaminated organisms can then enter the human food chain, posing a serious threat to public health.

Consuming seafood tainted with oil-related toxins can lead to acute and chronic health problems. Communities relying heavily on fishing for their livelihoods and food supply can experience economic and nutritional crises as a result of disrupted food chains.


Apart from all the ways discussed above, oil spills can also lead to public health crises in many other ways. However, for now, knowing the ones above will do. What’s more important is that businesses look toward ways of keeping oil spills under control if not fully put a stop to them. Otherwise, these health crises, limited to only certain countries, might become worldwide problems.