What Is Petroleum Contamination?

Warren Environment Lawyers at Herold Law Can Help You if You Think You Have Been Harmed by Petroleum Contamination.

Petroleum, or crude oil, is a fossil fuel found under land or ocean floors that is extracted and refined into products like gasoline, oils, diesel fuels, and kerosene. These are composed of petroleum hydrocarbon compounds that can cause problems if they leech into soil or drinking water. As these compounds are highly mobile, they transport easily and can be hazardous for your health. Some of these compounds, such as xylene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and benzene, can also cause cancer.

Aside from drinking contaminated water, you can become exposed to petroleum through inhaling its fumes from soil. Although low-level limited exposure is less harmful, continued exposure presents health hazards for children, adults, and people who work around petroleum.

How Does Petroleum Contaminate Water and Soil?

Petroleum can get into the water from oil spills, offshore pipelines, and platforms. One spilled gallon of oil can contaminate millions of gallons of water. Many times, this is accidental, but it can also happen when an entity intentionally gets rid of waste. Examples might include leaking underground storage tanks, bilge pumping from ships, ship groundings or collisions, blowouts, pipeline breaks, and overfilling gas tanks. Closer to home, you might see oil-contaminated water runoffs from parking lots and streets during and after heavy rains. This can then get absorbed by the ground.

Wet oil products are not the only danger, petroleum can also produce gaseous air pollutants. As oil is loaded and unloaded at differ times, its vapors produce hydrocarbons, such as non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs).

When petroleum hydrocarbons get into the soil, the concentrations do not have to be that high to impact people. Hydrocarbons can also damage soil microorganisms, adversely impacting their numbers and activities. This means that seeds will be unable to germinate, plants will have less nutrients available, and it poses risks to wildlife, plant-eating insects, and grazing livestock. This contamination can have domino-like effects; the clogged soil prevents the air and water from helping plants thrive and can product drought-like effects.

What Are the Signs of Petroleum Contamination?

There are government regulations in place for petroleum hydrocarbons and remediation technologies for contaminated water and soil. Like other dangerous pollutants, refined petroleum is still a health concern in many areas. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, petroleum is a hazardous substance and is also cited by other regulatory agencies, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Anyone exposed to petroleum contaminants might experience nausea, blurred vision, dizziness, vomiting, headache, and a loss of coordination and balance. Other initial symptoms may include a burning or irritation in the eyes and skin, throat, lungs, and/or the nose. Prolonged and repeated exposure can cause bronchitis, with chronic coughing, shortness of breath, and/or phlegm buildup. The lungs can become irritated, and the skin can become cracked, dry, and red. High levels of exposure may even lead to coma or death. The main organs affected by long-term exposure are the liver and kidneys, so smoking and drinking alcohol can make symptoms worse. There is currently no scientific evidence as to how these contaminants impact pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers.

Anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to petroleum contaminants would be advised to see a physician. If exposure is suspected, the doctor might order lung, liver and kidney tests, an exam of the nervous system, and chest X-rays. It can also be helpful to consult with a lawyer who is experienced in environmental law. If you have been negligently harmed by exposure, you may have legal options.

When there are high concentrations of petroleum contamination, you may be able to see or smell the oily residues. Soil may look discolored, and there might also be little or no vegetive growth in the area. The oil can also solidify on soil surfaces, and you can also see it in water in some cases. The smell is not hard to miss.

What Are the Exposure Limits?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guideline for workplace airborne exposure is 3,500 parts per million (ppm) on average for an eight-hour shift. The limit from NIOSH is different, it is 88 ppm over a 10-hour shift and 450 ppm not to be exceeded in a 15-minute work period. As a guideline, soil concentrations that range from 10,000 to 50,000 ppm in total petroleum hydrocarbons are considered to be toxic to most microorganisms.

It has been shown that low levels of benzene can lead to headaches, confusion, dizziness, a rapid heart rate and unconsciousness. Higher levels can lead to death. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posts that 200 ppb is their maximum permissible level for benzene in water for children for short-term exposure. The EPA also has different limit levels for other petroleum contaminants.


Australia has been in the forefront of petroleum contamination remediation technologies, engaging with stakeholders and regulators in early production stages to identify remediation goals and working solutions. This includes defining site sensitivity, emergency response protocols for pollutions incidents, and choosing the most appropriate and affordable clean-up technologies. They have also taken steps for pilot-testing newer remediation technologies, monitoring clean-up performance, and for developing plans to close out clean-ups.

Scientists are always working on better ways to clean up petroleum contaminants. For smaller-scale contaminations, it may be recommended to leave them alone as they will eventually break down into less harmful substances. To speed up this process, the soil can be dug up, tilled, or piled. Adding fertilizer and keeping the contaminated area warm can also help. With large-scale contamination, remediators also heat up contaminated soil or plant certain vegetation that helps dry out soil. Chemical amendments, biopiling, and landfarming are other processes that can help.

Warren Environment Lawyers at Herold Law Can Help You if You Think You Have Been Harmed by Petroleum Contamination

If you suspect petroleum contamination has caused your health issues, you may have legal options. Our knowledgeable Warren environmental lawyers at Herold Law, P.A. are well-versed in environmental law, and we may be able to help. To schedule an initial consultation, complete our online form or call us at 908-647-1022. Located in Warren, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout the surrounding areas, including Plainfield.