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Oil Spills and Health

Topics: Chemical Agents, Contaminants and Hazards, Emergency Preparedness, Emergency Response


Oil spills are very complex events that, depending on where they occur, may result in acute exposures to nearby human populations. Regardless of the presence of humans, however, oil spills have the potential to produce long-term impacts on human well-being through impacts on ecosystems, food systems, livelihoods, and psychosocial effects. Over the past 50 years, dozens of moderate to large marine spills have provided unfortunate opportunities to study the long-term effects of these events on nearby communities. Although the general trend indicates a decrease in the overall size and number of marine oil spills from tankers (ITOPF, 2018), even a small spill can have devastating impacts on a community when it affects the industries and activities upon which the community depends. Furthermore, the volatile nature of hydrocarbon products can lead to secondary disasters, such as the explosion of a crude-bearing train in the town of Lac-Mégantic in July 2013, which killed 47 people.

The aim of this topic page is gather resources to understand the potential for the physical and psychosocial impacts of oil spills. We also provide guidance from public health agencies on planning for and responding to oil spills, and resources providing important insight for risk communication during spill events.

NCCEH Resources

  • Supporting Indigenous communities during environmental public health emergencies (Eykelbosh et al. 2018)
    This article presents some key considerations for public health practitioners engaging in an emergency response in an Indigenous community and/or their traditional territory. The paper draws on direct personal learning from the Nathan E. Stewart spill in Heiltsuk territory, and incorporates the perspectives of community leadership as well as the public health practitioners engaged in the response.
  • Community Impacts of Fuel Spills: A Case Study from BC’s Central Coast (Slett et al., 2017)
    This webinar presented by by Chief Councillor Marilynn Slett (Heiltsuk Nation), Linda Pillsworth (First Nations Health Authority), and Angela Eykelbosh (NCCEH) on the environmental public health response to the impacts of the marine diesel spill that occurred near Bella Bella on October 13, 2016.
  • Oil spills: Treating patients, counselling communities (Eykelbosh and Kosatsky, 2017)
    This article in the BC Medical Journal summarizes key considerations for physicians who encounter oil spill-related complaints from patients.
  • Oil Spills: Scoping the Issues for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (Eykelbosh, 2017)
    This webinar, delivered as part of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Occupational and Environmental Health (OEH) Seminar series, introduced some of the key issues facing public health practitioners in preparing for and responding to crude oil and other fuel spills.
  • The 2013 Lac-Mégantic tragedy: The Public Health response then and now (Généreux, 2016)
    A webinar presented by Dr. Mélissa Généreux, Director of Estrie Public Health, regarding the environmental public health response and long-term follow up to the  Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that occurred on July 6, 2013.

Selected External Resources

Health and community impacts

Response and recovery tools

  • Guidance for the environmental public health management of crude oil incidents  (Health Canada, 2018)
    This guidance document provides detailed guidance for public health personnel involved in responses to crude oil spills. This document resulted from collaboration between the NCCEH and Health Canada and provides information on crude oil, its hazards, and its potential effects on health. The focus is primarily on acute exposure resulting from major incidents.
  • Oil Spills Resource Page (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, nd)
    This web page provide numerous resources regarding the management and clean-up of oil spills. The primary focus is occupational health and safety training for responders and clean-up workers, as well as links to other American federal agencies that are involved in spill responses. Additional resources from NIOSH on protecting workers can be found here.
  • Seafood Safety After an Oil Spill (NOAA, 2019)
    This web page provides tools and guidance documents to food safety personnel attempting to assess the safety of seafood products potentially impacted by an oil spill.
  • Creating a world-leading response system (Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC), Heiltsuk Tribal Council, 2017)
    After the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill, it was clear that the current oil spill response capacity of the central coast of BC was inadequate and unsafe. This report highlights where the need for response capability is most urgent and outlines a plan for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC) near Bella Bella to address this need. This is accompanied by an investigation report, detailing the 48-hours after the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart and the spill that followed. It also outlines the response efforts by the Heiltsuk, and the attendance of other organizations.
  • Communication Practices for Oil Spills: Stakeholder Engagement During Preparedness and Response (Walker et al., 2015)
    This academic article usefully summarizes some of the risk communication challenges around oil spills and lays out five “engagement practices” to facilitate communication with the public using the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a case study.
  • Reassuring or Risky: The Presentation of Seafood Safety in the Aftermath of the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Greiner et al. 2013)
    This article examines news media coverage of seafood safety after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and discusses the complexity inherent to balancing food risk messaging against other environmental and economic risks. A public health approach to communicating seafood safety and risk is provided.
  • Planning for the Human Dimensions of Oil Spills and Spill Response (Webler, 2010)
    This article, which is targeted at emergency planners, provides an approach to incorporate the effects of oil spills on humans beyond the traditional public health focus on physical health impacts.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Omission of a resource does not preclude it from having value.

Last updatedSep 25, 2019