University of Florida

Sources of Pollution: Oil

The negative effects of oil in the environment are caused by both the physical nature of the oil and by the toxic effect of its chemical components.

Physical Damage

When plants are coated with oil, they may stop growing and germinating, and as oil penetrates the soil, root systems may die. When wildlife fur or feathers come into contact with oil, they get matted down, losing their insulating properties and placing animals at risk of freezing. As the complex structure of the feathers that allows birds to float becomes damaged, the risk of drowning increases for birds.

Toxic Contamination

Oil vapors can cause damage to an animal's central nervous system, liver, and lungs. Animals are also at risk from ingesting oil, which can reduce the animal's ability to eat or digest its food by damaging cells in the intestinal tract. Some studies show that there can be long-term reproductive problems in animals that have been exposed to oil.

Spilled oil has the potential to affect every level of the food chain. Floating oil may contaminate plankton, which includes algae, fish eggs, and the larvae of various invertebrates such as oysters and shrimp. In turn, the small fish that feed on these organisms can become contaminated. Larger animals in the food chain, including bigger fish, birds, bears, and humans may then eat these contaminated fish. Thus, predators that consume contaminated prey can be exposed to oil through ingestion.

Did you know?

The five quarts from your car could create an oil slick the size of two football fields or pollute a million gallons of drinking water.

Modified From:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Oil Spills Learning Center. Last modified: January 27, 2011.

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