Heating oil & crude oil exposure limits & health effects: this article describes the exposure limits for home heating oil and for crude oil exposure in both exposure limits for oil fumes and exposure limits for contact with heating oil or crude oil.
To understand the health risks associated with exposure to home heating oil, it is useful to distinguish between exposure to the fuel itself or its fumes (discussed here) versus exposure to the combustion products of the fuel, such as oil burner exhaust, flue gases, smoke, soot, and the contents of those materials.
Exposure limits are discussed for heating oil, fuel oil, diesel fuel, and crude oil.
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Workers in the Gulf region are at risk from exertional heat stroke, and there can be short-term effects from fresh oil-spill fumes: affecting the eye, neurological system, and skin. Short term lung, kidney, and liver functions may be affected. Media reports and studies of oil spills do not address effects of long term or chronic exposure to crude oil spills, but sources indicate that as oil breaks down in water it becomes less toxic over time. - Reuters
OSHA's position and that of other expert sources such as the ATSDR is that modest typical residential exposure to heating oil fumes is a nuisance that may not pose a hazard to a healthy individual. Reuters reportedthat "Health and Human Services Department officials told a Congressional haring that little is known about the health impacts on people of oil spills." (Reuters, op cit. 6/23/10) We recommend monitoring results of "Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop", June 22-23 2010. - Instutite of Medicine.
While the long term environmental effects of crude oil spills such as the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill are not yet clear, more immediate complaints of oil fumes ashore in Louisiana have been reported. Local health officials in that state have warned people with respiratory illness, asthma, or similar conditions to avoid breathing oil fumes and to "stay indoors".
The oil and oil fume toxicity, safety and MSDS data below provides a summary of possible health concerns from short term, chronic, or long term exposure to refined oil spills such as No. 2 home heating oil. We include links to Material Data Safety Sheets for Crude Oil MSDS [PDF] as well
as HOME HEATING OIL MSDS where we provide more health related details.
In understanding the health risks associated with exposure to home heating oil, it is useful to distinguish between exposure to the fuel itself or its fumes (discussed here) versus exposure to the combustion products of the fuel, such as oil burner exhaust, flue gases, smoke, soot, and the contents of those materials. Additional details about oil tank and heating oil safety hazards are at OIL TANK SAFETY.
Fossil Fuel Combustion Gas Hazards for Home Heating Oil: at COMBUSTION GASES & PARTICLE HAZARDS we discuss the hazards from burning fossil fuels to heat buildings or to make hot water. Discusses are the most likely hazards from combustible fuels, oil and gas, in or around buildings. Our quote below is from an MSDS example MSDS for No. 2 Fuel Oil from Hess Corporation.
WARNING: the burning of any hydrocarbon as a fuel in an area without adequate ventilation may result in hazardous levels of combustion products, including carbon monoxide, and inadequate oxygen levels, which may cause unconsciousness, suffocation, and death.
Below we turn to the exposure hazards to un-burned home heating oil liquid and fumes.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC) has reported the following possible hazards from exposure to oil spill fumes, smoke, or contaminated food, water, and oil dispersants: - quoting from original source 17 June 2010, http://emergency.cdc.gov/gulfoilspill2010/what_to_expect.asp
People can be exposed to hazardous substances related to the spill by breathing them (air), by swallowing them (food, water), or by touching them (skin). People should avoid close contact to the spill and fumes from any burning oil.
Watch out: If you smell gas or see smoke or know that fires are nearby, stay indoors, set your air conditioner to reuse indoor air, and avoid physical activities that put extra demands on your lungs and heart.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are monitoring the oil spill and its potential impact on the safety of seafood harvested from the area. Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in the stores at this time. For more information about seafood and the oil spill, visit http://www.fda.gov/Food/ucm210436.htm
Drinking water and household water are not expected to be affected by the spill. However, water used for recreation may be affected. Swimming in water contaminated with chemicals from the oil spill could cause health effects. For more information about water and the oil spill, visit http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/oil_spill/information_residents.htm#5.
Follow local and state public health guidelines and warnings about the use of beaches and coastal water for swimming, boating, and fishing. For more information about beach safety, visit http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/go/doc/2931/542551/.
Oil spill dispersants break an oil slick into small drops. For most people, brief contact with a small amount of oil spill dispersants will do no harm. However, longer contact can cause a rash and dry skin. Dispersants can also irritate your eyes. Breathing or swallowing dispersants can also cause health effects.
If you are concerned that you have been exposed to oil or dispersants, see your doctor. Health care providers can find more information on CDC’s oil spill web site at http://emergency.cdc.gov/gulfoilspill2010.
Our field investigation experience as well as a review of a responsible oil company's No. 2 home heating oil MSDS [Material Data Safety Sheet from HESS Corporation] and oil spill guidelines from several sources including the US EPA and state regulatory agencies provide anecdotal and other evidence that the elderly, infants, or people who are in fragile health, as well as people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity, allergies, asthma, and some other respiratory conditions may experience more serious symptoms including asthma attacks and other complaints.
The following is quoted from ATSDR's Public Health Statement for Fuel Oils [PDF] and represents the best summary of this question that we have found:
"We know very little of the human health effects caused by fuel oils. Daily use of a kerosene stove for cooking should not cause any breathing problems for most people. People who use kerosene stoves to cook do not have more colds than people who have other types of stoves. Breathing moderate amounts of deodorized kerosene (fuel oil no. 1) has been shown to slightly affect the ability to smell and to cause a taste sensation.
Numerous case-studies have reported accidental poisoning in children as the result of drinking kerosene. These accidents are probably much more frequent in areas where kerosene is commonly used for cooking and heating.
Drinking kerosene may cause vomiting, diarrhea, swelling of the stomach, stomach cramps, coughing, drowsiness, restlessness, irritability, and unconsciousness; also, it may be difficult to breathe, and breathing may be painful.
Coughing, pneumonia, and difficult or painful breathing after drinking kerosene suggest that kerosene has entered the lungs. In addition, drinking large amounts of kerosene can put you into a coma, cause convulsions, and may even cause death. When kerosene gets on your skin for short periods, it can make your skin itchy, red, and sore; sometimes blisters may occur and your skin may peel.
"Breathing fuel oil no. 1 vapor for periods as short as 1 hour may make you feel nauseous, increase your blood pressure, be irritating to your eyes, or make your eyes bloodshot. Breathing kerosene or JP-5 vapors can also affect your nervous system.
Some of the effects of exposure to heating oil vapors that have been noted in case studies include headache, light-headedness, anorexia (loss of appetite), poor coordination, and difficulty concentrating. Breathing diesel fuel vapors for a long time may damage your kidneys, increase your blood pressure, or lower your blood's ability to clot. Constant skin contact (for example, washing) with diesel fuel may also damage your kidneys.
"It appears that repeated contact with fuel oils can cause skin cancer in mice and may cause liver cancer in mice. However, there is some conflicting information. Further, the fuel oils were tested only on mice. We do not know if fuel oils can cause cancer in humans.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that residual (heavy) fuel oils and marine diesel fuel are possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B classification). In addition, IARC considers that there is not enough information (Group 3 classification) available to determine if distillate (light) fuel oils or distillate (light) diesel fuels cause cancer.
They have also determined that occupational exposures to fuel oils during petroleum refining are probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A classification). We do not know if fuel oils can cause birth defects or if they affect reproduction."
Several U.S. states including the Connecticut department of health provides a
fact sheet on home heating oil spills [PDF] that includes the advice that homeowners should avoid both breathing heating oil fumes and skin contact with heating oil. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services offers similar advice.
and ATSDRs section on Heating Oil Chemical Properties. [PDF]
2016/07/04 M. Setera said:
Neighbor spilled 100 gallons of diesel fuel next to my bedroom window and stood there for 2 weeks. I'm experiencing dizziness and nausea and confusion. Is this from the inhalation of fumes?
M. You don't say where you live but in many jurisdictions, certainly in North America and in many other countries such as in the E.U. (pre Brexit including the U.K.) a spill of diesel fuel must by law be reported to local environmental authorities who in turn will require a proper clean-up. In the case you describe, most likely the oil-soaked soil will have to be removed for proper disposal.
I can't guess at diagnosing dizziness and nausea and confusion by e-text and I hope you will take those questions to your doctor promptly.
But I can cite some research articles that document that dizziness, nausea, confusion, and other complaints can certainly follow some levels and durations of exposure to oil fumes.
How should I explain to transport Authorities that reducing Diesel Exhaust Nox from the tail pipe should be enough to upgrade a Diesel engine to Euro 5 EU standard Regulations. - C.B. 7 June 2015
Here we summarize the basic information provided on MSDS sheets (material data safety sheets) for home heating oil. This information is a condensation of the full MSDS information on heating oil - readers should be sure to review the full home heating oil MSDS.
See MSDS Sheet for HOME HEATING OIL for our full article on this topic, including exposure limits for exposure to home heating oil in liquid or gas form.
A typical No. 2 home heating oil MSDS document provided by Hess Corporation includes the hazard identification information for home heating oil that we list below. The same document provides information about toxicity levels - the exposure necessary for serious medical effects to be at risk or to actually occur.
Watch out: Fire and Explosion Hazards of No. 2 Home Heating Oil [fumes]: OSHA and NFPA Class 2 COMBUSTIBLE LIQUID (see Section 14 for transportation classification). Vapors may be ignited rapidly when exposed to heat, spark, open flame or other source of ignition. When mixed with air and exposed to an ignition source, flammable vapors can burn in the open or explode in confined spaces. Being heavier than air, vapors may travel long distances to an ignition source and flash back. Runoff to sewer may cause fire or explosion hazard.
Readers should also see OIL TANK SAFETY where we describe the flammability and explosion hazards of fuel oil fumes and where we provide an extensive list of hazards and safety concerns for fuel oil.
Also see OIL TANK LEAK ADVICE for our detailed advice on handling leaky oil tanks as well as links to oil tank leak regulations for U.S. states and Canadian provinces. Readers should also see BOILER NOISE SMOKE ODORS for a discussion of flue gas leaks, smells, and hazards from the combustion products of oil burning heating appliances.
4/3/2014 Michele said:
Is there any information on fuel oil leaks being teratogenic?
(May 15, 2014) jon said:
what health effects, if neighbors #2 heating oil leaked under your entire slab? Any if EPH is greater than 5100, how does this impact your property? And lastly are there any history of dimunization of value due to remediated properties?
For other readers, Teratogenic is defined as
Teratology is the study of abnormalities of physiological development. It is often thought of as the study of human congenital abnormalities, but it is much broader than that, taking in other non-birth developmental stages, including puberty; and other non-human life forms, including plants. - Wikipedia, retrieved 4/3/2014, original source en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teratology
Define Teratogen: a drug or other substance capable of interfering with the development of a fetus, causing birth defects. - dictionary.reference.com, retrieved 4/3/14, original source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/teratogen
With the warning that not I nor other InspectApedia editors are medical experts, let's hop over to some of the fuel oil MSDS data. A typical No. 2 home heating oil MSDS (courtesy of Hess Corporation) discusses health effects of heating oil / fuel oil exposure.
Clicking on that page returns to our general oil-tanks information so you'll need to use your browser back-button to return here more directly.
You'll see that the discussion there is principally about possible carcinogenic (cancer causing) effects of fuel oil or heating oil exposure. The word teratogenic does not appear in that discussion. Or if that's not enough take a look at MSDS Sheet for HOME HEATING OIL.
But as soon as we go beyond the industry MSS & ATSDR authority one can certainly cite research suggesting teratogenic concerns. Here are a few citations of research into the teratogenic effects of fuel oil.
You'll see in any more extensive literature search that Hoffman dominates search results on the topic and so in my opinion is a key resource.
So my answer is yes quite possibly.
But considering your use of the undefined phrase "fuel oil leaks" I must add that "exposure" bears some careful examination and definition. A trivial oil spill at the oil burner during oil filter change most likely does not produce a measurable effect (in my OPINION) on humans. The people to watch for health effects first are those for whom exposure levels are likely to be higher. For example, see:
And let's remember the confounding effects of all of the other chemicals in the environment to which most people are exposed, even mere cooking oils.
12 Jan 2015 Bheki Simelane said:
I would to know how good is the number 4 fuel oil made from recycled tyres and plastics
No. 4 fuel? See the definitions and types of heating fuels we provide at
There you'll see that #4 fuel oil (bunker oil) is used in large stationary engines, power plants, and very large commercial boilers. No. 4 oil when burned as heating fuel may contain several contaminants including nickel and sulphur.
There is indeed a No. 6 fuel being produced from recycled plastics by John Bordynuik, who JBI Inc. using a process he invented to convert plastic into oil by rearranging its hydrocarbon chains. Here is some research on production of fuels from recycled plastics:
Continue reading at MSDS Sheet for HOME HEATING OIL or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
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(Apr 28, 2014) Anonymous said:
we removed an old oil tank from our basement,quite a bit leaked out how can we remove the odor from our house
Detergent scrubbing, oil spill deodorizer sprays or liquids, dryout, then surface sealing is about as good as you can get. I'd remove whatever materials possible that don't need to be saved. Beware also that VOCs tend to permeate and hang around in other soft materials like insulation. On occasion the spill is so serious that deodorizing is not successful.
(Feb 3, 2015) Anonymous said:
We have an older model combination oil/wood furnace (neumac) that is emitting oil fumes on occasion. The repairman suggests that we wait until spring to replace it. In the meantime are the fumes harmful to our health? We are not using the wood burning section at all.
Anon the risks of oil fume exposure are described in the article above where you'll also find links to MSDS sheets. The actual risk in a specific situation depends, as do all environmental hazards, on level of the dose and duration of the exposure with additional consideration of individual health sensitivities.
(Mar 10, 2015) Jodi said:
I have been exposed to oil fumes for a long period of time. What test can my Dr. do and how can I find a lawyer to help me ,because I complained over a year ago about oder and symptoms I was nothing to no avail. Now its confirmed.
This is a medical question to take to your doctor first. In my opinion I'd focus first on health. Ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist in environmental medicine or toxicology.
(Mar 18, 2016) Maria said:
On Feb 20, 2016, 10-12 gallons of diesel fuel spilled on the roof directly above our office. What is the "long term health effects" of exposure to these fumes?
Our employer has made attempts to clean up the smell, however, we continue to experience headaches, rhinitis, pharyngitis, eye/head pressure, irritation of the lungs/chest, and nausea. We would really appreciate the information you can provide us. Thank you.
Maria email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I cannot assess environmental hazards from an oil spill, even a small one, by e-text. For example, if the oil fumes persist over a long time or if the spill contaminates an HVAC system there might be real risks. You need an on-site expert, perhaps an industrial hygienist familiar with the issue.
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