Oil Spills

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What are oil spills and how do they occur?

An oil spill occurs when hydrocarbons from liquid petroleum leak into the environment due to negligence or malfunction. Over the past few decades we’ve seen many widespread pollution incidents, and a great amount more that has gone under the public’s radar. Spills arise from equipment breaking down, natural disasters, and even intentional acts by terrorists and vandals. 6.4 billion liters of oil have been lost due to tanker incidents alone from 1970-2009! Remember when the first rain of the rainy season occurs, and you see rainbow colors in small puddles. That is the oil and dust rising out of the unwashed road. That also contributes to the oil in the ocean since approximately 2.6 billion liters of oil enter the ocean every year, with half of that due to motor vehicles. Every year, oil runoff from a city of about 5 million could dump as much oil in the ocean as one large oil spill! While you may be thinking that oil spills happen quite rarely, smaller and more chronic ones occur on a daily basis.

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The effects of these toxic monsters

Oil spills are quite deadly to the local environment and humans. Crude oil breaks up into gas, naphtha, kerosene, light gas, and other noxious residuals, all of which are known to be hazardous to human & animal health, and can affect large-scale environmental systems.  Oil has a tendency to spread out extremely thin and could spread out hundreds of miles across the ocean. Therefore, oil can reach coasts and estuaries and contaminate them. In addition, when marine animals and birds get coated with oil, they lose their power to trap air and repel water, which leads to hypothermia and death since they can’t maintain their body heat. Such marine animals include sea otters, hawksbill sea turtle, fish, and even sharks. Oil contamination can impact public health including illnesses caused by toxic fumes or by eating contaminated fish or shellfish. However, there are many other less obvious public health impacts, including losses and disruptions of commercial and recreational fisheries, seaweed harvesting, boating, and a variety of other uses of affected water. 

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Solving the problem

One way we can prevent lots of oil spills is by incorporating many preventative measures such as de-fueling or checking for leaking gaskets, seals, and docking glands. Since oil spreads rapidly, containing it in its 1st stage of spread is critical. This can be done using a large floating barrier called a boom. In addition, a new substance is emerging which may clean up the oil in the most efficient way. A superabsorbent polymer material can be used to sop up oil 40 times its own weight, and afterwards the oil can even be recovered. It is a cost-effective solution which dramatically reduces the environmental impacts from oil spills.