Petroleum Pollution

Petroleum Pollution

Terry Tamminen (Author & Environmental Policy Advisor) gives expert video advice on: Is there a correlation between smog and human disease? and more...

What is a "petroleum product"?

A petroleum product is anything made of oil. So that would include gasoline and the oil that you use to lubricate your engine. Petroleum products also include things like vasoline and other products that you might use as lubricants in your sewing machine or your workbench at home.

Do certain plastics contain petroleum products?

Virtually all plastics are made from petroleum, and in fact that's one of the unfortunate things, that oil is a very valuable product. When it's taken out of the ground we use petroleum oil to make pharmaceuticals, and plastics, and things that benefit mankind, and its unfortunate that we use so much petroleum oil to burn it in our cars for transportation.

What is "Polyvinyl Chloride" (PVC) and why is it dangerous?

PVC is polyvinal chloride and it'sa plastic material that is used to make pipes amongst other things. It has many benefits because it is easy to work with, it's durable, it's fairly inexpensive so it allows plumbing even in low income communities and third world countries. Recently though we've learned that some of the components in PVC will leach, so for example if it's used for plumbing for drinking water that some of the constituents in the PVC will leach into the water and get into our bodies and could be very toxic.

What is "smog" and how does it affect air quality?

Smog was a term that was first coined in the late 1800s in England when researchers observed a combination of smoke and fog -- smog. Since then, we've understood that the smoke from smog doesn't always need a lot of moisture, doesn't need the fog part. In a modern American city, or anywhere else around the globe, the smog is caused mostly by emissions from motorized vehicles, although certainly some of it is caused by emissions from power plants and other things that burn fossil fuels.

Is there a correlation between smog and human disease?

There is a very direct correlation between smog and human disease. In the United States alone, 100,000 people die prematurely from completely preventable petroleum-related air pollution and six and a half million more suffer from asthma just from petroleum-related air pollution. That means from the tailpipes of our cars and trucks. Many more suffer because of emissions of particulate matter: that's the fine soot that might come from, for example, a coal-fired power plant.

What are the health effects of smog on the human body?

Smog on the human body acts in a number of very, very harmful ways. First of all, some of the components of smog include ozone, which actually oxidize, or kind of eat at the soft tissue of your lungs, and they can reduce lung function temporarily or permanently, up to thirty or fifty percent. They also execerbate existing diseases; if you have asthma for example, smog makes it worse. Various other components of smog are known to cause cancer and asthma, and other respiratory diseases.

What is "particulate matter" (PM)?

Particulate matter, or PM as it's called, is fine soot. I'm sure everyone has driven, at some point, behind a big old yellow school bus, and as the school bus goes up the hill, we see this big cloud of black soot coming out of the diesel engine tailpipe. Well, that's particulate matter, the fine particles, which actually is diesel fuel that hasn't combusted in the engine and is being spewed out of the engine in the form of this fine smoke or soot. Particulate matter is measured in terms of its size; as PM 2.5, meaning 2.5 microns or larger, and then PM 10, which is 10 microns or larger. Just to give you a little background on that, a human hair is about 35 microns in diameter.

What effect does "particulate matter" have on snow and ice?

Well, particulate matter has a couple of very odd effects or harmful effects. One is that the fine particulate matter, the finest part that's measured in microns of 2.5 microns or larger, gets deep into our lung tissue and actually penetrates the lung tissue and gets into the blood. The fine particulate matter literally thickens the blood the way that flour thickens gravy, and obviously that has terrible consequences on human health. But particulate matter also has the effect, this soot when it goes up into the atmosphere, of trapping greenhouse gasses, and also radiates a certain amount of heat back to Earth, causing a more rapid melting of snow in the mountains or things like glaciers.

What are "petroleum volatile organic compounds" (VOCs)?

Volatile organic compounds or VOCs are the fumes that you can smell from gasoline or petroleum products. So when you're pumping gasoline into your car, that very recognizable acrid odor are things like benzene and toluene, and xylene, called the BTX compounds. These are all volatile organic compounds.They're also found in things like paint so after you've painted your house, and you can smell that fresh paint smell, those are actually VOCs which are fairly harmful to your health.

Why is petroleum pollution impossible to escape in most cities?

Petroleum pollution is impossible to escape in most cities around the world because 100% of the air we breathe anywhere where there are motorized vehicles is contaminated with volatile organic compounds, soot, and other by-products from petroleum; either in its state as it's being refined or even as you're pumping it from the pump to your car. There are fumes that escape even when your car is parked and the engine is not running. The heat on your car causes evaporative emissions coming out of your car and out of the gas tank and so forth. So, wherever you go in this country, and of course, around the world; wherever there are cars or other motorized vehicles, you're inhaling these toxins.

What is an "emission standard"?

Emission standards are set by regulatory agencies around the world. In the United States, it's the US EPA, and then state EPAs or regulatory agencies. It's a standard that says, "We want to reduce a particular pollutant below a level that has an observed health effect." We know that certain concentrations of various things are in the air. Some occur naturally and they're not particularly harmful to humans. So, we want to make sure that any emissions that are created by humans and regulated by humans are below those health protective thresholds.

What is the "Air Quality Index" (AQI)?

The Air Quality Index (AQI) differs in different locations depending on where you are in the world or where you are in the United States. The air quality index (AQI) s a ranking of how the air quality is in your particular region in terms of the "criteria pollutants," which are the various pollutants that are regulated under the Clean Air Act.