how does an oil spill affect the environment

How Does an Oil Spill Affect the Environment?

Last Updated on August 20, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Oil spills have a significant impact on marine life and the environment.

When adult fish are exposed to oil, they may experience reduced growth, enlarged livers, changes in heart and respiration rates, and fin erosion.

Read on to learn more about how an oil spill affects the environment, humans, and animals.

How Does an Oil Spill Affect the Environment?

How Does an Oil Spill Affect the Environment?
Coastal and marine life, as well as human health, may be severely impacted by oil leaks, which are a typical occurrence in maritime incidents. In addition, their effects, like the one in Huntington Beach due to the oil spill, can be long-lasting. Image Credit: Wave Tribe

Oil spills have extensive and long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems, from individual organisms like fish and birds to entire habitats like wetlands and shorelines.

Even small spills discharge toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Research shows spilled oil persists in the environment for years, posing chronic risks after the visible effects have diminished.

Complete restoration of affected communities can take decades after major spills.

Key Points

  • Oil spills release hazardous chemicals like benzene and heavy metals that accumulate up the food chain.
  • Animals that rely on feathers and fur for insulation and buoyancy, like seabirds and otters, are especially vulnerable.
  • Spilled oil seeps into sediments along shorelines and causes chronic, lingering damage to habitats and wildlife.
  • Besides their toxic effects, oil spills contain greenhouse gases that worsen climate change.

What are the immediate effects of an oil spill?

When an oil spill occurs in the ocean, it spreads quickly and forms a thin layer on the surface of the water.

This thin oil layer looks like a rainbow sheen with darker colors like red and brown, indicating a thick layer.

As the oil disperses, it travels faster than the surface slick and can harm marine life.

Oil spills immediately impact birds and marine mammals that surface to breathe.

Birds exposed to oil spills may suffer from damage to their feathers, which reduces buoyancy and the ability to regulate body temperature.

This exposure ultimately results in hypothermia, drowning, starvation, and ulcers in birds’ eyes.

Dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions exposed to oil spills experience damage to the mucous membranes of their eyes and mouth.

How do oil spills affect plants and wildlife habitats?

Crude oil is highly toxic to many plants and animals, so oil spills can destroy plants and animals in the ocean and on land.

Oil spills that reach shorelines can coat wetland vegetation in thick, black goo, killing plants, mangrove forests, and marshes.

Loss of vegetation and habitats, in turn, impacts nesting birds, aquatic animals, and shoreline communities.

Oil can persist in sediments for years at much higher concentrations than the levels that cause biological harm.

So, the risk to the environment can remain long after the visible effects are gone.

When oil reaches the shore, it infiltrates gravel and sand, moving into groundwater reservoirs or becoming buried in sediment.

These buried oil residues can linger, posing chronic risks to birds and aquatic life.

What kinds of animals are most vulnerable to oil spills?

Seabirds like gulls and terns are especially vulnerable when their feathers get coated with oil, destroying their insulating and waterproofing properties.

Aquatic animals like fish, crabs, and plankton risk exposure when floating oil contaminates their habitat.

Species such as sea otters and seals rely on clean fur for maintaining body temperature and buoyancy.

So, when the fur of sea otters and seals gets matted with oil, they can die of hypothermia or drown.

Whales, turtles, and dolphins often come to the water’s surface to breathe, which puts them in direct contact with floating oil slicks.

This can damage their skin, eyes, blowholes, and digestive tracts.

Overall, animals that depend on feathers or fur to regulate their body temperature are most vulnerable to oil spills.

What potential health effects do oil spills have on humans?

Oil spills can impact human health through the contamination of seafood with petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals.

This can introduce toxins into the food chain.

Oil spill cleanup workers are also exposed to crude oil, which contains volatile organic compounds like benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene.

Acute health effects of oil exposure include respiratory problems like asthma, nausea, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.

Chronic health effects may include liver and kidney damage, lung, skin, and nervous system problems.

Mental health impacts like anxiety and depression have also been reported in people involved in oil spill cleanup efforts.

So, oil spills have both acute and chronic health consequences for exposed humans and wildlife.

How do oil spills affect the economy and livelihoods?

Major oil spills can impact marine transportation, tourism, and the fishing industry, hurting local and regional economies.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, the prices of salmon, herring, and other fish dropped dramatically.

Many fishermen had to seek compensation for their losses through lawsuits, but full restoration of their livelihoods took years.

Some fishing habitats took over 20 years to recover.

The economic effects also extended to industries indirectly dependent on fishing like fish processing, equipment repair and supply shops, and tourism.

Besides commercial fishing, oil harms subsistence harvests in indigenous communities, impacting both their food supply and cultural practices.

The economic costs of oil spills are far-reaching and can persist for many years.

What techniques are used to clean up oil spills?

Rena oil spill cleanup
Emergency responders require a range of instruments and techniques to remove oil and chemicals that have spilled in our rivers, bays, and oceans or washed up on our coastlines, much as we might use sponges, scrub brushes, and a disinfectant to clean up a disaster in our home or yard. Image Credit: The Wire

Cleanup methods aim to minimize environmental damage by containing and removing oil quickly.

Techniques include deploying containment booms to corral large oil slicks.

Skimmers can then remove contained oil from the surface.

Vacuums remove pooled oil while absorbent materials like pom-poms and pads soak up oil from beaches and rocky shorelines.

Low-pressure flushing with warm water helps remove oil from sensitive shoreline habitats like marshes.

Bioremediation introduces nutrients or microorganisms to accelerate natural oil breakdown.

However, all these techniques have limitations depending on factors like soil type, weather, location, and accessibility.

There is no single effective cleanup method, so responders use a combination of techniques.

Prevention remains key to protecting the environment from oil spills.

How long do the impacts of oil spills last?

The persistence of oil spill impacts depends on the ecosystem and organisms affected, as well as factors like soil type, spill volume, response measures, and habitat recovery rates.

Small spills in open water where oil can disperse may have shorter recovery times measured in weeks or months.

But large spills and those reaching the shore can have effects lasting years or even decades for long-lived species.

For example, killer whale populations have still not recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill after 30 years.

Complete restoration of habitats like marshes can also take decades.

However, the elimination of the oil source and cleanup efforts accelerate natural recovery processes and mitigate long-term impacts.

But even after the oil cannot be seen, chronic risks can remain through buried oil and persistent ecosystem effects.

How do oil spills worsen climate change?

Besides releasing toxic chemicals, oil spills also contain greenhouse gases like methane and contribute to climate change.

Burning excess oil and using dispersants during cleanup also emits harmful pollutants.

And infrastructure for offshore oil drilling can erode coastal habitats like wetlands that are important carbon sinks.

There are direct emissions from the oil as well as indirect emissions from activities around the spill and cleanup process.

For example, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, adding tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Oil spills add to the environmental impacts of extracting and burning fossil fuels that should be avoided to mitigate climate change.

What are the 5 effects of oil spills?

Oil spills have wide-ranging effects on the environment and organisms.

Five major effects are:

  1. Oil coats feathers and fur, compromising birds’ and mammals’ ability to regulate temperature. This can lead to hypothermia and death. For example, 150,000 to 600,000 seabirds died in the Exxon Valdez spill.
  2. Floating oil slicks prevent sunlight from reaching marine algae and plants below the surface. The reduced photosynthesis decreases oxygen production, harming aquatic life.
  3. Oil contamination makes fish and shellfish unsafe for human consumption due to carcinogenic chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Fishing closures after spills cause economic hardship.
  4. Spilled oil is highly toxic to coral, leading to bleaching, reduced growth rates, and tissue death. Entire coral reef ecosystems can be devastated.
  5. Heavier oil components sink to the seafloor and smother benthic organisms like crabs and starfish that provide food for larger species. The effects ripple up the food chain long-term.


In summary, oil spills can have lasting and far-reaching impacts on marine ecosystems and organism health, as well as human livelihoods and economies.

They worsen climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.

While oil persists in the environment long after a spill, concerted prevention and cleanup efforts can accelerate recovery and limit damage.

Considering these extensive environmental consequences, societies globally need to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources like wind and solar power.


How quickly does oil spread when spilled in the ocean?

When oil spills into the ocean, it can spread at a rate of up to 4 km per hour, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Factors like wind, waves, temperature, and oil type influence how rapidly it spreads. Within just hours to days, a spill can extend over hundreds of square miles across water surfaces.

Do oil spills permanently damage habitats?

While major spills don’t usually cause irreversible catastrophic damage, their impacts can persist for decades before the full recovery of habitats and ecosystems. For example, only 3% of the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill remained by 1992, yet some shoreline habitats took over 20 years to recover. Complete restoration can be difficult if oil seeps into sediments.

How are birds affected by floating oil slicks?

Seabirds like gulls, terns, and guillemots are vulnerable when their water-repellent feathers are matted by floating oil. This destroys the feather’s structure and insulating properties, leading to hypothermia, starvation, and drowning. Even small amounts of oil compromise the waterproofing of feathers.

Can humans be harmed by exposure to spilled oil?

Yes, oil spills pose both acute and chronic health hazards to cleanup workers and communities through contamination of seafood and drinking water, as well as direct contact with skin and inhalation of vapors. Chemical components in crude oil can damage organs like the liver and kidneys over time.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about protecting the environment and wildlife from preventable harms like oil spills. Visit our website to learn more about sustainability, conservation, and how you can help safeguard our planet’s future.

Scroll to Top