When we talk about “dirty” fuels, most of us conjure up images of a mass exodus of cars, their carbon dioxide seeping into the air. However, there are numerous dirty fuels used everyday in that while they don’t get as much media attention, their effects are equally devastating.
Tar sands, otherwise known as oil sands are made up of clay, sand, water and bitumen. Almost all oil in the world can be traced back to tar sands. Bitumen, or tar, is a thick and sludgy substance made up of hydrocarbon and is commonly used in the making of asphalt. It is so thick that it is often diluted with light hydrocarbons to aid in the transport of the oil through pipelines. Tar is also toxic to humans. When inhaled, it can cause lung problems and worsen diseases like asthma. Tar can also seep through your skin potentially leading to serious diseases such as skin cancer. An umbrella under the Center for Disease Control, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry notes that animals have developed skin cancer as a result of exposure to tar.
While maintaining our roads and rooftops are critical, doing so under this method is incredibly harmful to the environment. After all, the most common threat of tar is the burning of asphalt and its toxic release of chemicals into the environment. The burning process itself is a contributor to rising global temperatures.
Tar Sands’ Environmental Impact
The production of tar stems from crude oil. Crude oil of course is used to fuel many of our automobiles. Bitumen is mined from tar sands at excavation sites such as those located in Alberta, Canada, Venezuela and various countries in the Middle East. In the U.S., the state of Utah is incredibly rich in tar sands. The extraction process is labor extensive. Unlike typical oil drilling, extracting oil from tar sands first requires the practice of open pit mining, followed by a transporting of the oil to an extraction point and then burning it down into liquid form. The latter process also requires a significant amount of freshwater -- water that could very easily be used for drinking where water is not clean.
As reported by OSHA, America’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hundreds of thousands of construction workers and roofers reported ongoing exposure to the burning of asphalt and how it may have impacted their health for the long term. What’s worse, there is no regulation to the amount of fumes inhaled, although the administration reports inhaling 5mg and under is generally considered safe. There are still concerns of the elevated risk of contracting lung cancer as a result of inhaling the fumes and that is currently being closely monitored. Workers who’ve been victims of tar sands would be hard pressed to argue that not enough is currently done to regulate the process of extracting crude oil.
Air Pollution From The Burning of Tar
One of North America’s leading sources of air pollution comes directly from tar sands. The particles that are especially toxic and seep into our air are a mixture of chemical vapors which result during the mining and extraction process. Scientists in Canada conducted air quality tests which were revealed in the journal Nature, and it was noted that the pollutants are taking a serious toll on our health. The amount of tar produced each and everyday indicates levels that are considered a public health threat. Even more concerning is that scientists conclude that we’ve yet to fully appreciate just how much pollutants are in our air from tar sands.
In response to the test results, oil companies came out in droves to defend themselves, showcasing advertisements that conveyed air quality levels were not nearly as bad as scientists have made them out to be. Public outcry reached fever pitch when concerned citizens simply stated there was lack of trust of companies over the mismanagement. In Alberta, air pollution levels are lower than the standard that the World Health Organization has put into place. That has been part of the problem; citizens see this as an endangerment to their health. It also grossly undermines a stark reality: climate change is an eminent threat. To combat it, we must first understand its effects so that we can properly mitigate its consequences.
The good news is the industry is at the very least putting into place tactics which can help grow public awareness. Air quality is measured and monitored in at least 15 different sites throughout Canada and especially in Alberta. Monitoring is also made public and sadly, it is showing an increase in greenhouse emissions. This can only mean that oil companies must rethink their mining efforts amidst a concerned people. As consumers become much smarter about sustainability practices and look to support companies that have similar values, they will also find cleaner alternatives if change doesn’t abound.
The planet is precious and when everyone takes responsibility for their part, we can enact change. Everything and everyone deserves to breathe clean air.