environmental burden and severe health risks for affected species. Following an accident, the effects of an oil spill may last for decades and may differ in various ecosystems. Every year, a number of oil spills occur due to faulty equipment, shipwrecks, or accidents, and they kill indiscriminately, affecting everything from the smallest organism such as plankton up to the largest such as blue whales.
This is what happened in April 2010, when BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and released around 205 million gallons of oil into the already severely polluted Gulf of Mexico. The incident was instantly identified as one of the largest environmental disasters in the U.S. Based on careful observation of this sad event, scientific research suggests that the Gulf’s ecosystem still hasn’t recovered from all the harmful impacts of this massive oil spill.
To learn more about the danger oil spills pose to our environment, keep on reading.
Heartbreaking facts about oil spills
1. Oil causes birds to drown
Oil spills cause birds to die a slow, painful death from hypothermia. Oil ruins the water repellence properties of bird’s feathers and destroys their insulating effect, exposing their skin to the full force of the cold water1.
Under normal conditions, feathers are perfectly waterproof because of their unique structure and alignment to the body. However, when oil sticks to them like a glue, it leads to a misalignment that ruins this special insulating function.
The most vulnerable birds are those that spend most of their time swimming on the water surface, such as sea ducks, seagulls or alcids.
Perhaps the saddest evidence of these tragic consequences comes from when the Exxon Valdez tanker accident happened in 1989, spilling 260,000 barrels of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, killing over 30,000 birds; sea ducks and alcids were amongst those that suffered the largest losses to their populations5.
Excessive oil coating also affects a bird’s ability to float. An important function of proper feather alignment is to create tiny air pockets that help birds float. When oil sticks feathers together, birds struggle to stay on the surface and may even drown, when they become too exhausted2.
2. Dying of starvation
Many birds die while trying to clean themselves after coming into contact with an oil spill. It is the natural reaction of a bird to keep feathers properly aligned and neat. It is a heartbreaking sight seeing oil-soaked birds desperately trying to arrange their feathers, while unknowingly swallowing hefty amounts of the damaging chemical.
By ingesting this toxic cocktail during preening, serious health issues including pneumonia, lung haemorrhage, or liver and kidney damage can affect the organism of an already weakened animal, leading eventually to a slow and painful death2.
According to German biologist Silvia Gaus, only 1% of birds that are exposed to oil survive6.
The main reason is consumption of oil during preening, and the other reason is that birds are not even able to hunt, and therefore, die of starvation and total exhaustion of the organism6.
3. Major disruption of the food chain
The effects of an oil spill can still be seen in the affected ecosystem for up to thirty years. The scale of the damage is difficult to measure as there are innumerable interconnected processes that take place in a healthy ecosystem on a daily basis. The imbalance caused by the sudden death of many birds and marine mammals leads to a major disruption of the food chain.
Less visible impacts also happen at the lowest food chain level. Just like what happens to the bodies of larger animals, oil gets attached to microscopic plankton, which is a staple in the diet of many fish species. By feeding on large amounts of contaminated plankton, fish that were not even directly affected by the spill show growth abnormalities and immunity failures.
Another long-term effect is when oil seeps into the sediment. Oil can sink deep into sandy soils and remains there for decades. Based on previous observation, it is thought that recovery is quicker in warmer climates and on stable shorelines such as rocks, rather than in colder water or on unstable shorelines, like marshes or mangroves2.
4. Toxins in our seafood
Those of you who like good seafood, listen up, because oil spills could affect your next meal. Oysters, lobsters, crabs and other shellfish species accumulate the toxins from oil in their bodies because of the way their metabolism functions. When we eat them, toxins contained in their bodies enter our metabolism as well and may cause prolonged health problems.
A study from the faculty of Medical University of South Carolina concluded that the chemicals used to mitigate the impacts of an oil spill are disruptive for our metabolic hormones, contributing to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
This means that we are making ourselves more obese and sick by putting all these chemicals out there into the environment.
But it is not only us who are at risk. Consider all the marine mammals including seals and sea otters that feed on shellfish. They suffer in the same way we do and as they ingest oil particles this causes problems such as suppression of their immune system and lower reproduction success7.
5. Oily grave
In 1976, one of the most tragic environmental disasters of all time occurred. A small oil spill of around 10 tonnes (to put this in context, most spills are in the thousands or tens of thousands of tonnes) resulted in the death of more than 60,000 long-tailed ducks in the Baltic Sea. The accident happened because the oil made the surface of the sea seem calm, which attracted the wintering ducks to an oily grave2.
6. Threat to sea otters
Sea otters are especially vulnerable to oil exposure due to the fact that they rely on a thick fur coat for both warmth and flotation. When they come into contact with oil, their coat loses both of these properties at once, making them more vulnerable to death. On top of that, they are also affected indirectly by habitat loss due to contamination and are faced with diminished food sources2.
7. Deadly trap for baby turtles
Oil spills near sea turtle nesting areas can wipe out an entire population of juvenile turtles. If a spill reaches the fragile eggs, then the embryo either suffers severe deformation or dies even before hatching. And this is not the only risk baby sea turtles face. Newly hatched babies have to make their way over the beach to get to the water, which in cases where the area is contaminated with oil means that they are unknowingly marching right into the sticky toxic trap.
Needless to say, even a small accident can wipe out a whole family of young turtles2.
8. Health risk for volunteers
After an oil spill, volunteers and environmental experts must put their health and safety at risk in order to perform an efficient clean-up. Oil itself contains cancer-causing benzene, but also the chemical dispersants used during the clean-up are often hazardous to our organism during prolonged exposures.
A study of workers involved in the BP Deepwater Horizon clean-up came up with evidence of changes in blood composition, which may eventually lead to liver and kidney dysfunctions8.
9. Destruction of the ecosystem
One method of oil clean-up involves confining the oil to an area and setting it on fire. This obviously has terrible environmental ramifications such as air pollution, and could possibly affect animal life in the area more than the oil itself would, as the effects on marine species remain unknown4.
10. One step closer to extinction
Often oil spills affect already endangered animals, such as large turtles, cetaceans, and marine birds, more than any other animals. This pushes them closer and closer to extinction, and reduces their chance of surviving this age of rampant human destruction and environmental damage4.