Petroleum, Refineries, and the Future

Health Problems

Effects of Refinery Location:

In order to continue producing our oil and petroleum, refineries run near constantly, and some people believe that this is detrimental to the health of the communities. For one example, the city of Houston has multiple refineries. Melanie Evans, in her article for The Wall Street Journal, talks about some of the problems that can be found from having these refineries located within population centers. She states “a Manchester oil refinery that is a subsidiary of Valero Energy Partners said the leak on August 27 resulted in the emission of benzene and other hazardous compounds, according to a copy of the refiner’s report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality” (Evans). The release of these known carcinogens into such a densely populated urban environment can have dangerous health implications. For another example, in the United States an abundance of oil refineries are located in the southern belt of states, specifically Louisiana. Barbara Koeppel, a professional reporter, says that in her article for The Nation that “the stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and just south of New Orleans. Locals call it Cancer Alley. The corridor is home to seven oil refineries and somewhere between 175 and 350 heavy industrial plants, depending on how you count. Together, they produce staggering amounts of waste, much of which they treat on-site or spew into the air, land and water” (Koeppel 16). This waste is the primary cause for the compromised health of these communities. In her article, Koeppel continues saying “Eight-year-old Caleb Thomas and his family know this well… Caleb’s small body was being ravaged by rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer. For two months, he was shot full of chemicals and irradiated daily, which burned his head, face, inner ear and mouth. The sores in his mouth were so bad he couldn't eat for a year and had to be fed through tubes” (Koeppel 16). Stories like these are statistically more common in cancer alley than in any other area of the United States. Unfortunately, Louisiana isn’t the only place in the world that suffers from the consequences of having oil refineries and production plants located in towns.

   Saudi Arabia is another location that suffers from massive air pollution caused by manufacturing plants and oil refineries. The refineries in Saudi Arabia specifically have been associated with producing a high volume of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Leonardo Trasande, a professor at NYU School of Medicine, writes in his article for Environmental Research that “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are produced by the burning and processing of fuel oils, and have been associated with oxidant stress, insulin resistance and hypertension in adults” (Trasande). These effects were hypothesized to be increased in children, but there was a lack of formal research in that area. Leonardo Trasande conducted a study looking into this area by monitoring the health implications of school age children who lived and attended school within a set distance from an oil refinery. He concludes in his research that “the main finding... is that attendance of a school near a Saudi Arabian oil refinery is significantly associated with elevated blood pressure. Substantially elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon biomarkers were identified with attending school… Coupled with biologically plausible mechanisms, they raise potential concern about the vulnerability of children” (Trasande 139). These health implications also cause an unsurprising increase in mortality rates among the population centers that are organized around the oil refineries.


Mortality Rates and Air Pollution:

The quality of air also suffers when there are too many oil refineries located in conjunction with a high volume of traffic. The air becomes harder to breath and people beyond the workers at an oil refinery can suffer. These problems are covered in an article by F. De Santis, published for Analytical Bioanalytical Chemistry, where he speaks about different species of air pollution. He says that “these species may cause pollution problems, both on a local and regional scale. Acid rain, formation of fine particles, or tropospheric ozone generation are examples of far-field pollution” (De Santis). Important developmental buildings, like schools, may be affected by these formations of fine particles, which could impact the cognitive formation of adolescents. Further within his experiment De Santis used diffusive sampling to measure the concentration of different airborne particulates. Towards the end of his experiment, he further clarifies on some of the particulates he was researching saying “the sources of SO2 are clearly much more widespread than other pollutants within the area studied, with essentially similar average concentrations for the roadside and residential categories (17.7 and 17.0 micrograms/meters cubed respectively) and lower levels (12.2 micrograms/meter cubed ) for the local background” (De Santis).These results indicate that for urban areas with high traffic density, there is a far higher density of sulfur dioxide, which can have negative health implications.

    Adult employees at the oil refineries are often the most affected by health implications. They’re located at the source of the exposure, and often they can receive the worst of the pollution such as asbestos or benzene. Shannon Gaffney, a doctor of environmental health science, writes in her article, “Occupation Exposure to Benzene at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont, TX (1967-2007),” that “the analysis of air concentration trends over time showed that for most job categories, exposures were slightly higher in the 1976-1989 time period than in the 1990-2007 time period, but were only statistically significantly higher for the laboratory technician” (Gaffney 299). This shows that across the board, most positions suffered from higher exposure, some slightly less so, but laboratory technicians would suffer the most from cross pollution. Additionally, Fabio Montanaro shares his studies in an article titled “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Mortality among Petroleum Refinery Workers: A Poisson Regression Analysis of Updated Data.” Montanaro states that “studies have long linked asbestos exposure in oil refineries and mortality for mesothelioma (which may reach 24 times above baseline, suggesting that inhalation of fibers occurred), evidences on lung cancer mortality ranges from… a pronounced increase among blue-collar workers and among maintenance workers (a large subgroup of workers involved in the use of asbestos)” (Montanaro 188). This shows how multiple known carcinogens are dispersed among groups of workers, and how a known danger can be ignored for an alternative benefit.

    Employees aren’t the only ones who can receive the effects of health pollution. Civilians are also heavily affected. One of the ways believed that these health implications manifest is in lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer mortality worldwide. Cheng-Kuan Lin writes about the effects on the respiratory system in an article titled “Lung Cancer Mortality of Residents Living Near Petrochemical Industrial Complexes: a meta-analysis.” They state that “ Several studies have detected environmental air pollutants near petrochemical manufacturing plants and also after occasional fire accidents at petrochemical plants, and long-term exposure to the poor air quality, as well as radon, chemicals, and arsenic compounds among residents living near petrochemical manufacturing complexes raised general awareness and the need to understand the possible adverse health effects among nearby residents” (Lin). The results from this study strongly indicate workers are the most heavily impacted by air pollution and oil refinery contamination, but other people, namely residents of nearby towns, can also be heavily impacted by their effects.

Works Cited:

De Santis, F., et al. "Monitoring the Air Quality around an Oil Refinery through the Use of Diffusive Sampling." Analytical & Bioanalytical Chemistry, vol. 378, no. 3, Feb. 2004, pp. 782-788. Academic Search Premier.

Evans, Melanie. "U.S. News: Benzene found in Part of Houston." Wall Street Journal, Sep 06, 2017, Global Newsstream. Proquest.

Gaffney, Shannon H., et al. "Occupational Exposure to Benzene at the Exxonmobil Refinery in Beaumont, TX (1976–2007)." International Journal of Hygiene & Environmental Health, vol. 213, no. 4, July 2010, pp. 285-301. Academic Search Premier.

Koeppel, Barbara. "Cancer Alley, Louisiana." Nation, vol. 269, no. 15, 08 Nov. 1999, pp. 16-24.
Academic Search Premier.

Lin, Cheng-Kuan, et al. "Lung Cancer Mortality of Residents Living near Petrochemical Industrial Complexes: A Meta-Analysis." Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, vol. 16, 26 Sept. 2017, pp. 1-11. Academic Search Premier.

Montanaro, Fabio et al. “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Mortality among Petroleum Refinery Workers: A Poisson Regression Analysis of Updated Data” Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal. Vol. 59 no. 4. 2004, pp. 188-193. Academic Search Premier.


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