Most of us understand burning fossil fuels is a bad thing, causing a wide range of bad effects. While we understand there’s a problem, it’s even better to understand what the problems are, because that’s often the first step to it’s solution. The problems with fossil fuel use are so huge we desperately need solutions.
Crude oil itself is a mixture of many different kinds of organic compounds, many of which are highly toxic and cancer causing (carcinogenic). Exposure to crude oil is known to be lethal to a wide variety of fish, birds and other wildlife. Benzene, for example, is in both crude oil and gasoline, and is known to cause leukemia, to lower the white blood cell count weakening the immune system, and other ill effects.
Typically crude oil is not released directly into the environment unless, of course, there’s an “oil spill”. Instead the petroleum industry splits crude oil into a zillion various petroleum products. However, the result does mean every molecule of crude oil is distributed to various places around the planet. The most common petroleum product are fuels like gasoline, kerosene or diesel.
Incomplete combustion means there’s more released into the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Most of the political hoo-haa is over whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant, but of course that misses all the other constituents of fossil fuel exhaust.
- Sulfur Oxides – Coal and petroleum often contain sulfur compounds, and their combustion generates sulfur dioxide
- Volatile organic compounds – These include methane, benzene, toluene and xylene. Some VOC’s are highly carcinogenic, while others are highly potent greenhouse gases.
- Particulates – Soot comes in particles of various sizes, and are known to cause cardiovascular problems or act as a greenhouse gas.
- Persistent free radicals connected to airborne fine particles are linked to cardiopulmonary disease
- Toxic metals, such as lead and mercury, especially their compounds.
Remember Acid Rain? That’s still a problem despite not having had much attention since the 1980’s. Acid rain is caused by emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids. Both those substances are part of gasoline or diesel exhaust.
Climate change is already occurring, and it’s a looming threat that should make for a bleak future. Burning fossil fuels adds CO2 and other carbon compounds into the atmosphere. Increases in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases and therefore climate change.
Humans are fallible, as are all the machines and processes created by humans, and therefore failures are commonplace. Failures like oil spills. Of course untreated crude oil is released during oil spills, exposing wildlife and humans alike to the toxic chemicals.