Health Effects of Oil Spills

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 26, 2023
4 min read

Oil spills happen when small or large amounts of crude oil or distilled oils like gasoline or diesel are released into bodies of water and coastal lands. The spill contains toxic chemicals and can have serious short- and long-term health effects on oil workers, people who live nearby, marine life, animals, and the surrounding habitat.

Right after an oil spill, hazardous chemicals are released into the surrounding water and land. All oil spills are hard to clean up. Workers use skimmers and sorbents, which absorb oil after some of it is skimmed off. Another option is to use chemicals that break down dangerous, large slicks of floating oil to make it mix more easily with water. That way, it’s less of a threat to animals and coastland.

Crude oil is processed into, among other things, the gasoline we use to fuel cars. It’s a type of thick, yellowish-black liquid that consists of toxic chemicals like:

  • Benzene
  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • Ethylbenzene
  • O-Xylene
  • Styrene
  • Sulfur
  • Nitrogen

These unstable chemicals contaminate water and air and can damage health.

An oil spill is a messy and dangerous event that can take a toll on people and animals in the affected area. Those who are most at risk after exposure include:

  • Workers at the oil rig
  • First responders to the oil spill who help with cleanup
  • Marine life, like plants, fish, turtles, otters, and birds
  • People who live in communities near the affected water or land
  • People who work in the oil spill area, like sailors and people who fish
  • Those who eat food from the spill-affected area

After an oil spill, there are several direct and indirect aftereffects on the health of the surrounding community. Chemical reactions, fumes, and possible fires after an oil spill can contaminate the water and air and affect your health.

Short-term health symptoms after exposure to an oil spill include:

  • Memory loss
  • Dizziness and irritability
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing and lung problems
  • Fatigue
  • Skin injuries
  • Rashes
  • Blisters
  • Eye sores
  • Confusion

It’s also possible to have mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

Not a lot is known about the long-term health effects of oil spill exposure. But many studies are underway to find out more. One study looked at 88 oil spill cleanup workers initially after a spill and 7 years later.

The study found these workers had ongoing symptoms including:

  • Low platelet counts in the blood
  • Low hemoglobin levels
  • Breathing problems like chronic rhinosinusitis and issues with the airway
  • Liver problems
  • Lung problems
  • Heart issues

Other long-term health effects of oil spill exposure can include:

  • Increased cancer risk
  • Reproductive problems
  • Decreased immunity

When an oil spill spreads, animals like fish, mammals, or birds can become coated with the thick black liquid. Their instinct is to preen themselves. When they lick the oil, they ingest toxic chemicals. This can seriously damage their internal organs and cause problems with digestion and breathing. In severe cases, it can affect their ability to reproduce or lead to death.

While there’s no concrete evidence that oil spills cause cancers, gasoline contains benzene, which is a known human carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. Exposure to petroleum products has caused animals to develop liver or kidney tumors.

While there aren’t enough studies to show cancer risk from oil spills, research shows people who work in the oil and petroleum extraction industry -- or live near petroleum facilities -- do have an increased risk for cancer.

One United Nations report found that workers have a higher risk for:

Those living close to petroleum drilling and refining facilities were also at a higher risk for childhood leukemia.

If there’s an oil spill near you, whether large or small, there are things you can do to prevent health risks from exposure.

You should:

  • Avoid areas where you see or smell the oil.
  • Avoid any direct skin contact with the oil.
  • If oil does touch you, wash it off immediately with soap and water.
  • Don’t try to swim or enter any waters that may have been affected by the oil spill.
  • If you do boat or need to touch anything that may have oil on it, wear gloves and boots to protect yourself.
  • If you notice any of the short-term symptoms from oil spill exposure such as headache, nausea, or dizziness, go to a doctor.
  • If you notice symptoms like chest pain, breathing difficulty, or other serious symptoms, call 911 or go to a hospital.

If you’re pregnant or have children or pets with you, take extra care not to come in contact with the oil, contaminated water, or air.