Published on December 2nd, 2013 | by Don Lieber1
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons — #6 In “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries” Series
6. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)
In actuality, this is not a single listing — polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) is an entire class of toxic chemicals, linked together by their unique chemical structure and reactive properties. I include them on this list because they are frequently cited collectively as a primary fossil fuel pollutant.
Many PAHs are known human carcinogens and genetic mutagens. In addition, there are particular prenatal health risks: prenatal exposure to PAHs is linked to childhood asthma, low birth weight, adverse birth outcomes including heart malformations, and DNA damage. Additionally, recent studies link exposure to childhood behavior disorders; researchers from Columbia University, in a 2012 Columbia University study, found a strong link between prenatal PAH exposure and early childhood depression. Infants found to have elevated PAH levels in their umbilical cord blood were 46% more likely to eventually score highly on the anxiety/depression scale than those with low PAH levels in cord blood. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The rapid development of the Alberta “tar sands” oil fields in Alberta, Canada, has coincided with both the discovery of dangerous levels of PAHs in the region and multiple reports of significantly higher rates of cancer and other diseases in the adjacent communities. As reported in one local newspaper:
More women in the community are contracting lupus. Infant asthma rates have also increased. During the summer months, it is not uncommon to find mysterious lesions and sores after swimming in Lake Athabasca. “When you look at what is happening in the area, it can’t not be related to development,” says Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “Too many times, we see things in the animals and health that the elders have never seen before.”
The BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 provides another window into the previously hidden dangers of PAHs in oil production. Following the massive spill, scientists found PAH levels to be 40 times higher than before the spill.
Local fisherman, normally accustomed to some of the most abundant and healthy fisheries in the US, subsequently reported finding horribly mutated shrimp with tumors on their heads, some lacking eyes and eye sockets, clawless crabs “with shells that look like they’ve been burned off by chemicals.” An increasing number of scientists from diverse specialties – biologists, fish physiologists, environmental toxologists — from Louisiana State University, North Carolina University, North Texas University, and others cite PAHs from the spill as the most likely culprit.
The effects of PAHs to wildlife in the Gulf waters — coming to light several years after the spill — may merit attention across the American heartland as US domestic oil production increases dramatically.
Will North Dakotans, for example, soon begin to see a sharp rise in rare cancers, due to the hundreds of unreported PAH-infused oil pipeline spills in that state since 2012, like their unfortunate northern neighbors in Alberta are now experiencing near the tar sands fields?
Is this what we mean by “energy independence?”
Note From The Author
There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.
History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.
In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.
Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.
It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.
The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.
This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.
New York City
Image Credit: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon via Shutterstock
Stay tuned for the remaining 5 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries.