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What are the health effects of exposure to petroleum products?

Health effects from exposure to petroleum products vary depending on the concentration of the substance and the length of time that one is exposed. Breathing petroleum vapors can cause nervous system effects (such as headache, nausea, and dizziness) and respiratory irritation. Very high exposure can cause coma and death. Liquid petroleum products which come in contact with the skin can cause irritation and some can be absorbed through the skin. Chronic exposure to petroleum products may affect the nervous system, blood and kidneys. Gasoline contains small amounts of benzene, a known human carcinogen. Animals exposed to high levels of some petroleum products have developed liver and kidney tumors. Whether specific petroleum products can cause cancer in humans is not known; however, there is evidence that occupationally exposed people in the petroleum refining industry have an increased risk of skin cancer and leukemia.6

A spill that affects a home or business may affect the health of people who live and work there. Thus, every spill or leak should be stopped and cleaned up. Health complaints should be taken seriously.

Individuals who experience health problems that may be related to a petroleum spill should see their family physician or health care provider. Some individuals are more sensitive to petroleum odors and to the effects of exposure than others. The county health department or state health department may be able to help provide additional health information to affected individuals and their doctors. 

In situations where the indoor air environment has become contaminated to the extent that strong odors are present or air monitoring indicates serious contamination, homeowners, businesses, and tenants may be advised to relocate until the cleanup is completed. Generally, a DEC inspector or a county health department assessor determine whether relocation is recommended. People, including residential tenants who may not be legally responsible for the spill, can request relocation financial assistance from the Fund to cover reasonable expenses for lodging and meals. The county health department should be contacted for relocation assistance. Concerns about possible exposure via soil or water contamination should also be directed to the county health department.

This post was originally published by the Environmental Protection Bureau, NY Attorney General’s Office