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Oil sands industry a major source of air pollution, study finds

"What other exposure routes exist during the processing steps, such as transfer to air, water waste, or solid residues?” researcher Desiree Plata asked.

By Brooks Hays
Oil sands industry a major source of air pollution, study finds
Oil sands development in northern Alberta, Canada. New research suggests the oil sands industry is a significant contributor of air pollution. Photo by chris kolaczan/Shutterstock

NEW HAVEN, Conn., May 26 (UPI) -- Tar sands oil, sometimes called the dirtiest oil in the world, is mostly thought of as a threat to water sources, though new research suggests oil sands operations are a large source of air pollution.

A team of Yale scientists -- with help from researchers in Canada -- determined that oil sands operations in Alberta, Canada, are one of the largest producers of human-caused secondary organic aerosols in North America.

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Secondary organic aerosols, or SOAs, are organic molecules that are oxidized in the atmosphere. In other words, they're formed not at their source but once in the air. SOAs belong to a class of air pollution called PM 2.5 -- particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 microns.

PM 2.5 -- which includes car exhaust, factory soot, sulfates, aerosols and more -- is the deadliest type or air pollution. It's responsible for a variety of human ailments, including lung disease, heart disease, cancer and other maladies.

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Researchers published their latest findings in the journal Nature.

"The magnitude of the SOA is significantly larger than the sum of other sources of air pollution in many other major urban areas," study co-author Drew Gentner, an assistant professor with Yale's Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, said in a news release.

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Because Alberta's oil sands are far from large human populations, the implications for human health are less than what they otherwise might be. But researchers say the oil sands industry -- including its extraction and refinery processes -- warrants greater scrutiny from environmental scientists.

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"What other exposure routes exist during the processing steps, such as transfer to air, water waste, or solid residues?" asked Desiree Plata, also a co-author and Yale assistant professor. "And how does oil sands extraction compare to any other fossil technology?"

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