Crude oil, also known as “black gold,” is one of three primary fossil fuels found on Earth. These fossil fuels are created from the dead remains of plants and animals, which have been heated and compressed in the Earth’s crust over time. Along with coal and natural gas, crude oil is extracted and used as an energy source across the planet. It is also processed into numerous chemical products.
Crude oil (liquid petroleum) is considered one of Earth’s most valuable resources. According to statistics and predictions by Statista, the global demand for crude oil was 91 million barrels per day in 2020 and is expected to reach 104.1 million barrels per day in 2026. The majority of crude oil is used for transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel, but oil has many uses and purposes.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States used about 6.6 billion barrels of petroleum in 2020 alone. 29% of this was on other petroleum products, not motor gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.
Many people don’t know that crude oil is a core component of products that they use every day. Most Americans have no idea that plastic is made from petroleum products, mainly oil. Crude oil is used to make paint, perfumes, ink, shoes, purses, tires, nail polish, yarn, fertilizers, lipstick, roofing materials, soap, aspirin, antifreeze, sunglasses, artificial turf, shampoo, and even dice. One article lists 144 products made from petroleum.
With crude oil such a big part of our lives, it’s important to know what dangers it poses to our health. This applies to every American, from your average consumer to your oilfield worker. Every person deserves to know what can happen if they’re exposed to crude oil and who should be held responsible.
The Dangers of Crude Oil Exposure
While it may have many uses, crude oil is extremely dangerous. Acute or chronic exposure can lead to immediate and lasting health problems and even death. Crude oil is known to cause birth defects, and benzene, one of its key ingredients, is a known carcinogen. Each of the chemicals that make up crude oil is toxic in its own right, but it is the combination of these compounds that makes exposure so harmful. Many of the chemicals in crude oil are also volatile, which means they can move from the oil and into the air, increasing the potential for exposure.
Types & Consequences of Exposure to Crude Oil
Exposure to crude oil can occur in various ways. It may be inhaled, ingested, or touched. In many cases, exposure occurs from multiple sources, such as inhalation and skin contact. Air, food, or water that has been contaminated by crude oil can also present serious risks. The type of exposure, duration, and concentration will all influence the health effects a person may experience. Age, health, diet, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), if any, will also affect what injuries a person suffers from crude oil exposure.
Brief or short-term exposure to high levels of crude oil may be considered acute exposure. This can have immediate effects, including irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. Skin contact can cause irritation, burns, swelling, pain, and permanent damage. Inhalation or ingestion can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.
Long-term exposure to lower levels of crude oil is considered chronic exposure and can have devastating consequences. This type of exposure is more likely in the workplace or as a result of exposure to contaminated water, air, or food sources.
Chronic crude oil exposure can lead to:
- Lung damage
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Birth defects
- Gene mutations
- Immune system suppression
- Hormone imbalances
- Blood disorders
Benzene: A Natural Ingredient of Crude Oil
Benzene, a natural ingredient of crude oil and one of its most toxic, has gained headlines time and again for its presence not only in manufacturing facilities, chemical plants, and factories but also in consumer products. A recent article in Chemical & Engineering News discussed “finding benzene everywhere we look” when scientists at an independent lab found the chemical in hand sanitizers, dry shampoo sprays, sunblock sprays, and other consumer products.
Proctor & Gamble (P&G) recalled 18 different Secret and Old Spice spray products on November 23, 2021, just weeks after the independent lab released its findings. The company then recalled additional dry shampoo and conditioner sprays on November 17.
Back in 2014, Apple made headlines when the company banned the use of benzene and n-hexane from the final assembly process of iPhone and iPad products.
Benzene exposure can have short- and long-term health effects. Acute exposure to high levels of benzene can cause dizziness, rapid heartbeat, headache, confusion, unconsciousness, and even death. Long-term exposure to benzene can lead to cancer, specifically leukemia. According to a review in 1948 of benzene exposure by the American Petroleum Institute, there is no safe exposure level for benzene. It states that the “only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.”
How Does Crude Oil Exposure Happen?
While it is highly unlikely that using dry shampoo for one day or wearing a helmet that was made using a petroleum product will leave you vulnerable to harm by crude oil exposure, long-term exposure, or exposure to higher levels of crude oil or its ingredients, could have catastrophic results.
Exposure – and the serious health problems this can cause – is most often linked to working with oil or living in a community where an oil spill has occurred. Living near a plant or refinery, working with benzene or petroleum, or using petroleum-containing products could put you or your loved ones at risk of exposure.
Manufacturers, oil and gas companies, and the countless businesses that extract, refine, and use crude oil and its byproducts have an obligation to their workers, consumers, and every person on this planet to act responsibly and maintain safe workplaces and processes that reduce the risk of exposure. At Arnold & Itkin, we stand for people who have suffered harm from crude oil exposure. We help America’s workers and consumers get the support and care they need to rebuild. No matter what.