Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Toxicity of Oil

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts about recovering from the Gulf oil disaster and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

In the last couple of months, Gulf-area poison control centers have received 651 "exposure calls" related to crude oil toxicants. Symptoms reported by callers have included headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, throat irritation, eye pain, coughing or choking and dizziness. According to the Gulf Oil Spill page of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, most exposures have occurred via inhalation, with dermal contact also reported.

You can see some graphic documentation of crude oil’s effect on skin in a photo of some rash-afflicted legs posted yesterday with commentary by Riki Ott on the Huffington Post.

I viewed the rashy-legs picture after finishing yesterday's write-ups on the toxic petroleum byproducts contained in perfume, one on this blog and the other at the North Coast Holistics blog. At the same time, I discovered a fabulous piece by Stacy Malkan – ironically, or maybe not so, with the same title I had just given one of mine, "Petroleum in Perfume" – which eloquently relates toxic petrochemicals in fragrances to the Gulf spill disaster. It's a must-read, emphasizing the need to move away from past toxic practices and adopt new, greener approaches in all spheres of industry and life. Let's rethink petrochemicals, Malkan writes, and "move the entire economy toward renewable energy, clean production and green, safe chemistry."

As author of Not Just a Pretty Face:The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Malkan advocates that approach on a regular basis. The Campaign calls for elimination of toxic ingredients -- chemicals linked to birth defects, cancer, and other health issues -- in body care products. A recent analysis by the Campaign shows that top-selling perfumes contain hazardous compounds and secret petrochemicals.

That's not unlike the dispersant Corexit 9500 now being used to "clean up" in the Gulf. A few weeks ago, an article by Elana Schor in the New York Times (originally from Greenwire) reported that Nalco, producer of Corexit, had issued press releases noting that the dispersant's ingredients also occur in several common household products. Apparently fashioned to reassure the public, the release I found at Nalco's website noted that various unnamed ingredients in Corexit are also used in beverage mixtures, skin cream, body shampoo, and baby bath liquid.

This was not reassuring to me -- in fact, it had the opposite effect. It’s another indicator that the use of potentially harmful petrochemicals in common products has been undisclosed and unregulated for far too long. It's also another good reason to support the goals of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as well as all campaigns working to reduce our use of oil.

To tie this back to transportation, we also get plenty of personal exposure to toxic petroleum byproducts from cars. We're exposed at gas stations, in garages, and from tailpipe exhaust. Studies have consistently found higher cancer rates among people living closer to busy roads, where exhaust reaches highest concentrations. Inside cars, exposures might be even worse. Some studies have found pollution levels within cars to be higher than outside them. In addition, "new car smell" is loaded with endocrine disrupters, compounds that off-gas from petrochemical auto interiors, get into our bodies, and mess with hormone function.

We have some big reasons compelling us to end our dependence on oil, with the Gulf disaster, climate change, and the huge military cost of procuring oil all on the list. Petroleum toxicity is one more, and with the ever-increasing incidence of cancers and chronic illnesses linked to petrochemical exposures, it is no less important.


  1. We do not know what human health effects might occur after long-term exposure to food and water contaminated with benzene. In animals, exposure to food or water contaminated with benzene can damage the blood and the immune system and can cause cancer.

    Cancer is not something that will show up after a week of exposure to toxic chemicals - it can and does take years to form and cause its insidious damage. Telling the Gulf Locals to stay inside is not the answer.... the poison is everywhere, carried, as it were on the winds.......

  2. These are good points about the dangers of benzene. I have seen some statistics indicating that benzene levels are above safe thresholds in some locations near the spill -- I'm trying to find more information about that now. I agree with the concerns you express about long-term health effects. Parts of Louisiana have already been identified as a "Cancer Alley" and this can only make things worse.

    Thank you for your comments --