Oil: A life cycle analysis of its health and environmental impacts

When significant deposits of oil were discovered in the 19th Century, this fossil fuel appeared to offer a limitless source of energy to drive development. While oil and the energy it supplies provide multiple benefits to human society, every stage in the life cycle from exploration to use can have harmful effects on our health and the environment. This report examines the health and environmental impacts of oil exploration, drilling, extraction, transport, refining and combustion.

Drilling and extraction carry acute and chronic hazards, including fires and blowouts, occupational injury and disease, and can lead to long-term harm to plant and animal communities. Oil spills and leaks along coastlines pose risks for marine life and fisheries and can threaten the livelihoods of human communities.

Refining exposes workers and wildlife to petroleum, its by-products and the chemicals used in the refining process. At the pump, gasoline can be both toxic and carcinogenic. Refining and combustion result in air pollution and acid rain. Pollutant chemicals can be toxic to humans, other animals and plants, while acid rain has impacts on terrestrial, aquatic and marine coastal systems. Finally, the aggregate of gas and particulate emissions from burning oil have begun to alter the world’s climate system; with implications for human health, agricultural productivity, vulnerable ecosystems and societal infrastructure. 

This report, while not exhaustive, is intended to provide a comprehensive framework for evaluating the true costs of our use of oil. The authors hope it will serve as a resource for further study.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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