Will an oil spill affect my family’s health?

oil spill chromatogram showing seperation of diesel fractions

If you have recently suffered from a home heating oil spill or have been impacted by a neighbour having had one, the first thing you may think of might be “will an oil spill affect my family’s health?” Most of us have a fairly lessee faire attitude when it come to our own safety, however when it comes to our loved ones it is quite rightly a different matter.

What are we talking about here? For those of us with heating systems that run on liquid oil this normally comes in the form of home heating oil, sometimes better known as kerosene or C2 Fuel Oil. Kerosene is a crude oil distillate with Carbon chain lengths mostly in the range of C9-C16. Kerosene is a blend of a very large number of different molecules rather than one pure substance, so data specifically related to it is limited.


So how do oil spills come about? In the majority of cases causation can be narrowed down to just a few reasons;


• Leak from an oil tank
• Leak from a boiler
• Leak from a fuel pipe.


When oil has leaked from one of these sources usually the first indication you will have is a strong smell. Normally the smells are most significant at the first few days of an incident, and this is as a result of the smaller and lighter molecules in the kerosene mix evaporating as they have very low boiling points.

Kerosene spilled onto the ground or building products will migrate via the path of least resistance through soils, fill materials. Materials such as brick / block and concrete will be impacted as the oil spill migrates along pipework, conduits and foundations. Soils and building materials impacted by oil will pose a risk to health if you eat them or drink any liquids you might find nearby. Symptoms of ingestion of kerosene include diarrhoea, nausea & vomiting. Children playing in contaminated gardens and ingesting kerosene impacted soils would pose the greatest potential risk, although it is difficult to imagine a parent who would knowingly allow this to occur. Also, contact of large amounts of kerosene with the skin can lead to dermatitis.

More often than not oil spills will by default arrive at the foundations of your home as these are normally at the lowest level, just above firm ground and are surrounded by porous backfill material encouraging pooling. It is this element of an oil spill that impacts us the most. The smaller volatile molecules mentioned earlier evaporate and fill the pores in the soils and building products above the oil, penetrating concrete floors and damp membranes to occupy the ambient spaces of our homes. It is these oil vapours or fumes that pose the highest risk following an oil spill at your home.

The symptoms of acute kerosene / home heating oil vapour inhalation are similar to the general signs of intoxication such as dizziness, headache and nausea. Kerosene is described as a mild irritant to the respiratory system. Kerosene is not classed as a carcinogen, and it does not have a measurable effect on human reproduction or development.


Not withstanding the above information, a strong oil smell in anyone’s property is enough to ruin the enjoyment of a home and the symptoms, although not toxic are sufficiently irritating as to drive people to the point where they need to leave. Some people are much more sensitive than others to the effects of kerosene inhalation. However there are some groups who should take additional care such as those suffering from respiratory or pulmonary disorders, those who are immunosuppressed, small children, the elderly and asthmatics.


Luckily there are some immediate measures that can be taken by oil spill specialists such as Gaea Environmental to manage the immediate dangers of an oil spill.

Gaea offer a rapid emergency response to oil spills. Gaea can then assess what has happened, prevent further loss and contain oil spills to prevent further migration.

Gaea also have a large amount of equipment at the rear that can remove any oil fumes / vapours from your home, keeping you family safe whilst investigations are undertaken, and insurers get up to speed.


If you find that you are worried that you have been impacted by and oil spill and are concerned about your families health, give Gaea Environmental a call on 08000 541 361 or check out our website for further information www.gaea-environmental.com and contact us.