The growing use of heavy oils, tar sands, bitumen, petroleum coke, etc., by industry since 2000 or so has resulted in rapidly surging levels of vanadium emissions, according to a new study from Duke University.
To be more specific, human-related emissions of vanadium now surpass those of natural sources by a factor of 1.7 — setting the stage potentially for broad effects on human and animal health similar to those associated with emissions of other heavy metals, such as mercury and lead.
The effects of vanadium-rich aerosols on human and animal health are as of now largely an unknown (with the main exception being respiratory system distress and damage), but considering the known effects of similar metals on human health, this should not preclude caution on the issue.
Natural vanadium emissions are very limited in occurrence and scale, and largely only associated with volcanic eruptions and the weathering of certain types of rock. Human related emissions originate with combustion of certain types of heavier fossil fuels, and also with mining activities themselves.
Going on the findings of the new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), vanadium emissions from coal are existent but relatively low, while emissions associated with heavy crude oil, bitumen, pet coke, and tar sands, emissions are much higher.
Here’s more from the paper: “Through mining of V ores (130 × 109 g V/y) and extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (600 × 109 g V/y), humans are the predominant force in the geochemical cycle of V at Earth’s surface. Human emissions of V to the atmosphere are now likely to exceed background emissions by as much as a factor of 1.7, and, presumably, we have altered the deposition of V from the atmosphere by a similar amount…Increasing interest in petroleum derived from unconventional deposits is likely to lead to greater emissions of V to the atmosphere in the near future.
“Our analysis further suggests that the flux of V in rivers has been incremented by about 15% from human activities. Overall, the budget of dissolved V in the oceans is remarkably well balanced — with about 40 × 109 g V/y to 50 × 109 g V/y inputs and outputs, and a mean residence time for dissolved V in seawater of about 130,000 y with respect to inputs from rivers.”
It’s noteworthy here that many heavy oil plants and coke refineries are sited in places where the population is relatively poor, and where residents don’t have any (or much of) an ability to object on the basis of unprovable health problems.
Adding to that, the lead author of the new study, William H Schlesinger, a James B Duke Professor Emeritus of Biogeochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, stated: “We’re still in the early phase of understanding the risks people living in these areas face, but I suspect we’ll see a growing focus on the issue as the use of heavy oils and petroleum coke continues to rise in coming years.”
Speaking about an earlier study (done by a separate research team about a decade ago), Schlesinger continued: “Our analysis builds on theirs by providing the first quantifiable numbers for the release of vanadium from unconventional heavy-petroleum fuels, and updating numbers for all other sources to put these human impacts into context. Seeing all these numbers together for the first time, the unescapable takeaway is that human impact on the vanadium cycle is greater than our well-publicized impacts on the movement of lead through the atmosphere or the release of mercury from coal.”
This is something that should really give pause to those reading this, and to those that come across the study. The reality is that the modern path of addressing the release of dangerous and toxic materials into the environment only long after broad (and often widely fatal) effects have been witnessed is not one that can be justified from any ethical standpoint…and yet it seems highly likely that such an approach to behavior and materials use is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The “foreseeable future” in this case referring to whatever period of time elapses before the mounting problems of anthropogenic climate warming and weirding, soil erosion and fertility loss, water scarcity in key regions, accompanying mass migrations and cultural strife, and agricultural failures, force a fundamental readjustment of the scale and extent of human activity on the “tiny blue marble.”
How long will that be? That’s not something that can be easily predicted — but it does seem to be the case that not only is nothing truly effective being done to attempt to limit the above listed problems, but the civilized world actually seems to be actively intensifying the behaviors that cause them.