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Scientists investigate what happens when small oil spills aren't cleaned up properly — here's what they found

Given the results of this new study, it's likely time to start paying attention.

Given the results of this new study, it's likely time to start paying attention.

Photo Credit: iStock

When we hear about an oil spill, most of us probably picture the kind of rare oceanfront disaster scene that draws tons of news coverage — like 2010's BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But smaller amounts of oil spill into our lakes, rivers, and oceans on a much more frequent basis, and given the results of a new study, it's likely time to start paying attention.

Turns out these smaller-scale spills, especially when left to linger, can make a pretty major impact.

What's happening?

Many industries rely on oil as a natural resource. You might use types of oil to fuel your car, heat your home, or cook a meal. But what happens when small amounts of oil go into our bodies of water, particularly freshwater?

Scientists looked into this question when they investigated the effects of oil spills in freshwater in their study published this April in the American Chemical Society journal Energy & Fuels, reported Phys.org.

In the study, the researchers found that the more time oil sits in rivers and lakes, the more chemical changes it experiences. These chemical transformations can create unwelcome toxic products that hang around, wreaking havoc long after the initial spill.  

Why is this important?

You're about to drink some iced tea on a hot summer day when a drop of chemical solution splashes into your cup. You might reconsider taking a sip. How about 600,000 drops?

In 2023, Phys.org detailed, around 600,000 gallons of oil spilled into our oceans, rivers, and lakes, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (a group that monitors oil spills).

Oil spills don't just mean damage to the environment. High concentrations of chemical compounds bring a whole host of possible problems: contaminated fish and aquatic life, potential human health concerns, and the economic impact of a polluted water supply among them, as explained by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Can we do anything about it?

The good news is that it is possible to prevent some toxic oil spills and, even when they do happen, to prioritize cleaning up the contamination as quickly as possible.

As the research detailed in Phys.org revealed, certain chemical compounds increased as oil weathered during the 56-day study — indicating that a more immediate response to past and present spills of any size could lessen problematic effects.

Even if you didn't contribute to the spill yourself, you can still help out: Join a community cleanup effort, keep your road and water vehicles consistently and properly maintained, look up your state's policies and plans for the oil industry, and even consider using alternative energy sources like solar or wind power.

Yes, smaller oil spills can lead to big problems — but your efforts, even when seemingly small, can also lead to lasting solutions.

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