Communities on the northern shores of Brazil’s coast are experiencing one of the largest oil spills in human history, the source of which is unknown. Originally appearing on only a few beaches in early September, crude oil has now washed up on over 2,000 kilometers (roughly 1,240 miles) along the coastlines of nine states. Due to a slow government reaction, volunteers across Brazil have been photographed rolling up oil slicks and disposing of them in trash bags. This spill has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of ocean-dependent organisms, beach closures, and financial hardship for fishing and tourism-centered communities, severely inhibiting the resilience of these systems. 

Oil spills have an incredibly damaging effect on both the ecosystems they contaminate. The chemical composition of oil is toxic to most organisms, thus, exposure to it can be deadly. Oil can kill plants along the shoreline that help prevent a rising sea level and beach erosion. Oftentimes, animals will ingest the oil, causing an accumulation of oil in the liver and causing it to fail. Even animals successfully cleaned by rescuers are likely to die – capturing and cleaning them damages their immune system and renders them unable to return to natural survival instincts, leaving the post-treatment survival rate of such animals less than one percent. Furthermore, the oil is likely to stay in the affected environments for decades following a spill. After it is introduced to an ecosystem, it can accumulate underneath the surface of land or the bottom of the ocean, contaminating plants and animals for over thirty years, greatly preventing the environment from bouncing back to a healthier state. 

A clean up worker in the process of skimming oil. Photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A clean up worker in the process of skimming oil. Photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not only does oil wreck the environment; it deeply harms the resilience of the communities it touches. Though there are no long-term studies of the effects of oil exposure on humans, there are short term studies on workers who are tasked with cleaning up spills. The results are abysmal, showing that the longer a human is exposed to oil, the higher their risks are for respiratory damage, liver damage, cancer, reproductive damage, and other types of harm. Those exposed are also likely to experience intense rashes and neurological problems. Additionally, communities dependent on the ocean are hit hard by oil spills. Coming at a high time for tourism, it is estimated that 130,000 fishermen are out of work in Brazil and tourism is declining. Furthermore, even though the fish is likely contaminated, many fishermen continue to eat them, as it is the only way to feed their families.

The unknown source of the oil spill only further complicates the issue. A chemical test on the oil, performed by the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, indicates that the oil does not originate in Brazil. The country’s government has placed blame on a possible criminal dumping of crude oil off the Venezuelan coast, however, the Navy has issued a separate statement claiming a tanker may have leaked. Some even believe a German shipwreck from the mid-1950s is leaking oil a thousand miles off the coast of Brazil.

After oil spills, roughly about 15% of all spilled oil can be contained, and often the safest solution for the environment is to leave it alone. Even well-intended efforts can go horribly awry. There are few solutions to successfully cleaning up an oil spill. One drop of oil can cover the area of a two car garage, thus solutions must be far-reaching and effective. Oftentimes, it is corralled by boomers, or inflatable rings, and collected by mechanical skimmers, usually used to prevent spills from reaching a shoreline. Other times, in-situ burning, or burning the oil on the water can be effective, however, it must be over the open ocean and far from any possible human contact. Another solution can be the use of chemical and biological dispersants, which isolate the oil into drops in order to evaporate quickly, but these are largely ineffective. The most innovative and recent solution is the creation of low-toxin sorbents to absorb oil and repel water; unfortunately, it is still in the developmental stages and likely will be unable to assist the Brazilian government in aiding the cleanup effort. As the global economy is highly dependent on oil and related industries, the potential for future oil spills underscores the need to develop resilient practices for mitigation and recovery.

Sources and Additional Reading

EOS – Brazil’s Oil Spill Is a Mystery, so Scientists Try Oil Forensics

Reuters – Oil spill may be worst environmental ‘attack’ in Brazil’s history: Petrobras CEO

NOAA – How Oil Harms Animals and Plants in Marine Environments

Smithsonian Magazine – Why We Pretend to Clean Up Oil Spills

Amazon Frontlines – What do we know about how oil spills affect human health? Not enough.

Yahoo News – Brazil oil spill leaves local fishermen in the lurch

Maritime Exclusive – Frustration Grows as Brazi’s Mysterious Oil Spill Continues

Deutsche Welle – Mysterious crates washing up on Brazil’s oil-stained beaches

National Park Service – Spill Response

University of Delaware – How do you clean up an oil spill?

NOAA – How Do Oil Spills Out at Sea Typically Get Cleaned Up?

Science Daily – Safe solution to mop up oil spills