According to a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this week, on February 3, air pollutants emissions linked to oil sands are greater than previously estimated.
Consequently, it is possible that this industry threatens both the environment and public health more than currently believed.
In their paper, professor Frank Wania and PhD candidate Abha Parajulee detail that, as part of their investigation into how said industry affects the environment and public health, they focused on the Athabasca Oil Sands Region in Canada.
Specifically, they wished to determine the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, for short) that are released in the air as a result of tar sands mining and processing in the region.
As detailed on the official website for the University of Toronto, the researchers chose to study PAHs emissions due to the fact that some of these compounds have been documented to be highly carcinogenic.
“When dealing with chemicals that have the potential to harm people and animals, it is vital that we have a good understanding of how, and how much they are entering the environment,” specialist Abha Parajulee explains.
Although PAHs emissions have been investigated before, it would appear that the people who carried out these studies only took into account the amounts of said chemical compounds that are directly released into the environment.
It was thus concluded that, all things considered, PAHs emissions associated with oil sands exploitation fell within acceptable regulatory limits.
Professor Frank Wania and PhD candidate Abha Parajulee argue that the emissions stemming from indirect sources such as tailings ponds, i.e. lakes of polluted water in the region, are not to be neglected either, and might in fact contaminate the environment more than direct emissions do.
“Tailings ponds are not the end of the journey for many of the pollutants they contain. Some PAHs are volatile, meaning they escape into the air much more than many people think,” says Abha Parajulee.
“Our study implies that PAH concentrations in air, water, and food, that are estimated as part of environmental impact assessments of oil sands mining operations are very likely too low.”
“Therefore the potential risks to humans and wildlife may also have been underestimated,” Professor Frank Wania adds.
One other potential source of indirect PAHs emissions is blowing dust, which Abha Parajulee and Frank Wania believe to be a contributor to the environmental pollution associated with oil sands.