In the past 3 years, there have been least three ruptured pipelines that have spilled oil into U.S. neighborhoods. Local officials had to make rapid evaluations on whether residents would be harmed if they breathed the polluted air.
Unfortunately there are no clear federal guidelines or safety standards to go by for the public to be evacuated in the event of an oil spill. As described below, in 3 different states, the oil spills elicited 3 different responses.
Local Government Response in Utah
There was no evacuation in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a ruptured pipeline leaked 33,000 gallons of medium grade crude oil before it was discovered on the morning of June 12, 2010.
The oil spilled into Red Butte Creek, past neighborhoods where windows were left open in the summer heat. The fumes, which are known to cause drowsiness, left some people so lethargic that they didn’t wake up until after noon.
Local Government Response in Michigan
In Marshall, Mich. officials called for a voluntary evacuation after more than a million gallons of heavy Canadian crude spilled into the Kalamazoo River on July 25, 2010. That recommendation took place after 4 days of intense deliberation.
Local Government Response in Arkansas
In Mayflower, Ark. officials rapidly evacuated 22 families after a broken pipeline leaked about 200,000 gallons of heavy crude on March 29, 2013. Residents living in the same subdivision, just a few blocks away, were not asked to leave. Neither were the people of the lakeside community where the oil eventually pooled and where the cleanup continues today.
After each of these spills, people complained of headaches, nausea and respiratory problems—short-term symptoms that health experts say are common after any chemical spill.
Medical Experts Divided Over Long Term Effects
Experts are divided on whether the fumes could also trigger long-term health problems that become evident only years later. That knowledge gap will be increasingly important, over the next few years as the petroleum industry plans to build or expand more than 10,000 miles of oil pipelines—including the Keystone XL.
No Long Term Health Studies in Ruptured Pipelines
Despite the pipeline boom, there are no plans to conduct long-term health studies in Mayflower, Marshall or Salt Lake City. There also no plans to set federal guidelines for chemical exposures at oil spills, so that health officials will be better equipped for future emergencies.
Crude Oil: Witches Brew Of Carcinogens
Crude oil contains more than 1,000 chemicals, many of them hazardous to humans. Most important is benzene. Small amounts of benzene from car exhaust and cigarette smoke are commonly found in the air, increased exposure is known to cause leukemia and neurological problems.
How much Benzene Exposure is too much?
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), estimates that people can be exposed to air containing 9 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene for up to two weeks, or 6 ppb for up to a year, without a “likely” increase in harmful health effects.
But those guidelines don’t cover the risk of cancer, and they are “not intended to define clean up or action levels for ATSDR or other Agencies,” according to ATSDR’s website.
Other federal guidelines limit the amount of benzene that manufacturing plants can emit, or set standards for transporting benzene on the nation’s highways. Standards have also been created for people who handle benzene on a daily basis in a workplace setting. But those guidelines are for healthy adults wearing respirators—not for children, pregnant women and other vulnerable members of the general public.
During the Michigan spill, health official instruments measured benzene readings in the nearby community that ranged from less than 50 ppb to 200 ppb. Data gathered far from homes but directly over patches of spilled oil showed benzene concentrations of more than 6,000 ppb.
In Arkansas, health officials decided that Mayflower residents could return to their subdivision when benzene levels in and around their homes dropped to below 50 ppb. But people nearby complained of headaches, nausea and other health problems even after officials announced online that contaminants in the air were “below levels likely to cause health effects for the general population.”
Arkansas Sets Benzene Guideline of 50 ppb
After oil spills, public health decisions usually fall to county or state officials. In Mayflower, those decisions were made by the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), which set a benzene threshold of 50 ppb. Many health agencies guidelines, like the ATSDR guidelines, come with disclaimers saying they aren’t supposed to be used to define what’s safe and not safe.
The EPA, estimates that people continuously exposed to 4 to 13 ppb of benzene over a lifetime have no greater than a 1 in 10,000 increased chance of developing cancer. To avoid noncancerous blood disorders, the EPA recommends that people be exposed to less than 9 ppb per day over the course of a lifetime. But the agency’s website notes that the 9 ppb reference dose is “not a direct estimator of risk, but rather a reference point to gauge the potential for effects.”
When it comes to worker safety, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends a maximum average exposure of up to 100 ppb over an 8-hour workday. But because the standard applies to healthy adults who are often wearing respirators—and who are being paid for their occupational risks—health experts say members of the general public need stronger protections.
Arkansas vs. Alberta Benzene Guidelines
Arkansas’ benzene threshold is also considerably higher than the guidelines used in Alberta, Canada, where the heavy crude oil that spilled in Arkansas and Michigan was extracted. Alberta has a one-hour ambient air quality objective of no more than 9 ppb. Alberta’s ambient air objective was derived from existing scientific studies and established with input from industry, environmental organizations and regulators.
Need for a Long-Term Health Study
Some of the confusion over what’s considered safe at a spill site can be attributed to the general challenge of studying toxic exposure. According to experts, the science is inherently imperfect because it is based primarily on rodent and tissue culture studies. That means rats that typically live only a few years are used to study what might happen to humans decades after a brief exposure. Another complicating factor is that most lab studies are conducted on one chemical at a time, but oil spills release hundreds of different volatile compounds.
Residents in Mayflower, Marshall and Salt Lake City were exposed to all of them at once, and little is known about their combined health effects. In fact, the health effects of some of the chemicals found in crude oil haven’t been studied at all.
Science knows very little about the long-term effects of these toxic substances, how much, how often, how long is a very difficult question. And experts recommend medical follow up for the next 20 years. Chevron and Salt Lake City reached a $4.5 million settlement in Sept. 2011, but the agreement did not include a health study.
Shezad Malik is an Internal Medicine and Cardiology specialist, a Texas Medical Doctor (retired) and Defective Medical Device and Dangerous Drug Attorney. Dr. Shezad Malik Law Firm has offices based in Fort Worth and Dallas and represents people who have suffered catastrophic and serious personal injuries including wrongful death, caused by the negligence or recklessness of others.