Oil pipelines have been in the news a lot this past year, between the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and various publicized oil spills. Potential human health effects of these spills are one of the concerns frequently raised, so I’m going to take a fairly high-level look at the potential risks here. Environmental effects are a separate topic that I’ll hopefully get to in the future.
First off, to have a human health risk, you have to have a few conditions met. The first is obviously that you have to have a potentially harmful chemical. Since any chemical, whether natural or synthetic, is potentially harmful at some dose, that one is kind of a given. The second condition is that chemical must get to where humans can be exposed. The third is that humans have to be exposed to enough of the chemical to have a potential for adverse health effects.
When oil is inside a pipeline there isn’t really any potential for exposure. So what happens when oil is released during a pipeline rupture?