While major oil spills happen infrequently, they can cause severe environmental and economic damage to an entire region. Depending on the type of discharge, thousands of square miles can be affected. However, many people see oil spills as happening “out there” in the ocean, far away from home. Even if we can’t see firsthand the devastation, what happens out there does carry severe implications for all of us.
The good news is that in the event of a major catastrophe, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the U.S. government closes off any fisheries that might have been contaminated by oil. Ignoring the fact that closing down all of a region’s fisheries can destroy local economies, none of us have to worry about ingesting contaminated fish or other seafood from the area. However, most oil spills aren’t nearly as large as Deepwater Horizon.
For smaller spills, nearby fisheries are often left open for business. While those spills affect far less seafood, any fishing activities can lead to food contamination and sickness. The oil itself doesn’t just cause food contamination.
Many cleanup efforts include the use of highly toxic chemicals to break down and disperse the oil, an unfortunate but sometimes necessary step when large amounts of oil are located beneath the surface of the water. Surface oil is far easier to clean up since it’s easily accessible, and that’s when environmental friendly products and machines like oil skimmers can be used.
Any of these food products that do manage to reach us will cause long-lasting damage. The oil and chemicals are highly carcinogenic, which raises the risk of developing certain cancers. Besides cancer, the toxins can wreak havoc on our livers and kidneys.
Most organisms are sensitive to environmental changes. As a species, we deal with sickness caused by smog, UV radiation, and intense heat. If anything, marine life tends to be even more vulnerable. Any fish ingesting a large amount of oil will die. In an oil spill, millions of fish will swim right through contaminated waters.
Marine life that doesn’t die off from an oil spill still faces complications. Even two years after the Deepwater Horizon spill ended, there is an alarmingly high number of mutations in the Gulf of Mexico. Thankfully, this food will probably never reach our grocery stores and restaurants. Still, the fact that shrimp are being born blind and fish develop lesions at a frantic pace should give us pause once we consider that that particular spill may still be seeping oil into the Gulf.
It’s not just marine life that suffers either. Who among us haven’t seen pictures of oil-coated birds or turtles or other land animals that dwell along the shore? Oily beaches don’t exactly encourage tourism either, which can further devastate coastal towns and cities that rely on outside visitors for much of their business in a good year, not to mention the physical and mental toll these spills exact on those volunteers who spend months or years cleaning up.