The Effects of Oil Spills on a Highway

Written by emilytrudeau
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The Effects of Oil Spills on a Highway
highway driving (highway image by Ekaterina Sidorenko from

Oil spills on a highway can cause a variety of damaging effects to the highway, the people who live and drive in the vicinity, and even marine life many miles away. This type of event has occurred numerous times since the industrial revolution, and much has been learnt about the potential impacts as well as prevention techniques. Oil spills from tankers at sea create a large and direct impact to the surrounding area, but because of major prevention actions over the years, these are less common than they once were. They do not have as much of an impact overall as oil spills (both large and small) on highways.

Environmental Health

Most oil affecting the world's oceans, other than natural seeps on the sea floor, is caused by runoff from oil on land. Major oil spills from tankers at sea come in third after this, but even small oil spills, such the combination of oil from leaking cars, cause more damage ecologically than oil spills from tankers at sea. Runoff can result in a great deal of oil finding its way into surrounding waters that eventually lead to the ocean. Here, oil runoff can have both direct and long-term affects on the ecosystem. The direct impact is usually more physical, related to flora and fauna being covered in the thick black oil. Even if animals are not physically touched by oil, the habitats where they live may be damaged. This will affect those animals in the long-term.

There is also likelihood of toxic affects from oil spills on highways. The evaporation of the components of oil can be strong and lethal, but this usually affects only a small area close to the spill. Lifeforms that are exposed for longer amounts of time can lose their ability to reproduce or grow.

The Effects of Oil Spills on a Highway
Even small oil spills can affect marine life. (marine life image by pearlguy from

Driving Hazards

An oil spill on a highway creates a very slippery driving surface. Oil can be spilt while being transported by semi-trucks and create large spills, such as the one that happened in February 2010 in Brisbane, Australia. This particular spill was made worse by the additional factor of rain, which made the road especially dangerous. The build-up of small amounts of oil that has leaked from cars over long periods of time can also affect highways. This often happens in areas that do not get a lot of precipitation, so the oil stays on the road for a while. When there is eventually rain, the roads become more slippery than an that receives regular precipitation.

The Effects of Oil Spills on a Highway
Oil spills cause dangerous driving conditions. (Jeep and car after the road accident. image by Dragan Trifunovic from

Public Health

There is a public health concern related to oil spills on highways. Human exposure to oil has the potential to irritate skin and cause illness from the inhalation of toxic fumes. Cancer is also a low-risk possibility. Workers involved in cleanup of oil spills are most likely to be affected in this way. If you are exposed to oil, you should wear a protective mask to avoid the fumes, and wash skin thoroughly if the event of direct contact. Another threat to public health occurs when seafood is affected by a spill. Runoff from highways can contaminate common marine life that is later eaten by humans. This usually includes animals living in shallow water where oil can collect, such as mussels and shellfish. It typically causes short-term illnesses, yet bigger spills could contaminate seafood more seriously. Studies are being done by the Food and Drug Administration to understand this problem more completely.

The Effects of Oil Spills on a Highway
Seaffod such as mussels can become contaminated from oil spills. (mussels on a plate image by green 308 from

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