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What is crude oil?
Crude oil is a dark yellow-to-black oily liquid that is usually found in natural underground reservoirs. It was formed when the remains of animals and plants from millions of years ago were covered by layers of sand. Heat and pressure from these layers turned the remains into crude oil. This process is why crude oil is called a fossil fuel. Crude oil is extracted and used to make fuel and other petroleum products.
Crude oil is a mixture of a wide variety of constituents. It consists primarily of hydrocarbons, which are chemicals composed of hydrogen and carbon. Crude oil also contains hundreds of substances that include benzene, chromium, iron, mercury, nickel, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, toluene, and xylene. Total petroleum hydrocarbons is a term used to describe the several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil.
There are four types of crude oil:
Class A: Light, Volatile Oils: These oils are highly fluid and highly toxic to humans, and include jet fuel and gasoline.
Class B: Non-Sticky Oils: These oils are waxy and less toxic to humans, and include diesel fuel and light crude oil.
Class C: Heavy, Sticky Oils: These oils are brown or black and sticky or tarry, and include most crude oils. Their toxicity is low, but if spilled, their impacts on waterfowl and wildlife can be severe.
Class D: Non-Fluid Oils: These oils are non-toxic and include heavy crude oils. They are difficult to clean up, and if spilled, their impacts on waterfowl and wildlife can be severe.
Crude oil is refined to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, residential fuel oil, kerosene, liquefied petroleum gases such as propane and other sources of energy to produce heat or electric power. It is also used to make lubricants, waxes, ink, crayons, eyeglasses, tires, CDs and DVDs, ammonia, dishwashing liquid, and some health and personal care products. The United States is the third top crude oil-producing country, after Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The oil penetrates up the structure of the plumage of birds, reducing its insulating ability, and so making the birds more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and much less buoyant in the water. It also impairs birds' flight abilities to forage and escape from predators. As they attempt to preen, birds typically ingest oil that covers their feathers, causing kidney damage, altered liver function, and digestive tract irritation. This and the limited foraging ability quickly causes dehydration and metabolic imbalances. Hormonal balance alteration including changes in luteinizing protein can also result in some birds exposed to petroleum. Most birds affected by an oil spill die unless there is human intervention. Marine mammals exposed to oil spills are affected in similar ways as seabirds. Oil coats the fur of Sea otters and seals, reducing its insulation abilities and leading to body temperature fluctuations and hypothermia. Ingestion of the oil causes dehydration and impaired digestions. Because oil floats on top of water, less sunlight penetrates into the water, limiting the photosynthesis of marine plants and phytoplankton. This, as well as decreasing the fauna populations, affects the food chain in the ecosystem. There are three kinds of oil-consuming bacteria. Sulfate Reducing Bacteria (SRB) and Acid Producing Bacteria are anerobic, while General Aerobic Bacteria (GAB) are aerobic. These bacteria occur naturally and will act to remove oil from an ecosystem, and their biomass will tend to replace other populations in the food chain.
How can crude oil affect my health?
Exposure to crude oil may irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. It may cause dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, confusion, and anemia. Prolonged skin contact with crude oil may cause skin reddening, edema, and burning of the skin.
When crude oil is burned, either accidentally or as a spill control measure, it emits chemicals that affect human health. These chemicals include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide , and volatile organic compounds.
If you are exposed to burning crude oil, you may be exposed to high levels of particulate matter and may experience the health effects of particulate matter. Exposure to burning crude oil may harm the passages of the nose, airways, and lungs. It may cause shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, itching, red or watery eyes, and black mucous.
Handling tarballs may cause an allergic skin reaction or skin rashes.
If you think your health has been affected by exposure to crude oil, contact your health care professional.
Even though oil spills are fairly common, scientists at the two-day workshop say there's surprisingly little research on how they affect human health.
Since the 1960s, one researcher notes, there have been more than 30 major oil spills, nearly all of them involving shipwrecked tankers. But only about a quarter of them have been studied for toxic effects on humans. And the studies that have been done are often small and without comparison between groups of oil-exposed and unexposed people. In addition, none has so far looked at long-term consequences of exposure, such as cancer incidence.
It's true, Barnhart says, that cleanup workers exposed to crude oil often suffer acute effects — stinging eyes, rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughs and other respiratory symptoms.
What are the symptoms of a harmful chemical exposure?
A small chemical exposure can cause tearing eyes and burning of the eyes, nose, throat, chest and skin. It may cause headache, sweating, blurred vision, stomach aches and diarrhea. It is common for even mild symptoms from a harmful chemical to make people feel anxious. Once exposure is stopped, mild symptoms usually go away quickly. A large chemical exposure may additionally cause more serious effects such as difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, a faint feeling, or weakness. The worst effects from the most harmful chemicals are sudden collapse, convulsions, and possibly even death.