Research Document - 2015/007
A literature review on the aquatic toxicology of petroleum oil: An overview of oil properties and effects to aquatic biota
By Alain Dupuis and Francisco Ucan-Marin
This literature review gives an overview of petroleum oil:
- production, transport and historical spills in Canada,
- physical and chemical properties relevant to aquatic toxicity and,
- lethal and sublethal effects on fish and other aquatic biota.
Canada has large oil reserves. A significant proportion of total reserves are associated with Alberta’s oil sands. Both conventional and unconventional oil production occurs in Canada and unconventional oil production is dominated by recovery of bitumen from oil sands deposits. Currently, total annual export of petroleum oil by pipeline is substantially greater than exports by marine and rail transportation systems. Historical spills of petroleum oil occurred from pipelines, rail and marine transport methods. Spills have been known to occur in both freshwater and marine ecosystems.
Physical properties and other environmental conditions (e.g. weathering, temperature, presence of sediments, etc.) influence the fate and behaviour of spilled oil in the environment. Chemical properties vary widely across the different classes of petroleum oil. In all oils, aromatic hydrocarbon components are associated with harmful effects in aquatic biota. Monoaromatic hydrocarbons, i.e., benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, are often associated with acute toxicity. Meanwhile, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can cause both acute and sublethal toxicity.
Several classes of harmful effects have been documented in the literature based on laboratory studies and from observations after oil spill accidents. Exposure to petroleum oil can cause several biological effects including increased mortality, early-life stage developmental defects, reduced reproductive capacity, genetic damage, impaired immune function and disease resistance, and changes in behaviour. Many publications reported that early-life stages (embryos and larvae) of fish are more sensitive to oil exposure than adults.
Several recommendations are made for future research to address knowledge gaps on the effects of oil on aquatic biota. Research should address the lack of information on the effects of oil sands products (e.g., diluted bitumen, synthetic crude oil) on aquatic biota. Research is also needed to study the fate, behaviour and effects on aquatic biota of oil spills in ice-covered Canadian waters.
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(57 pages; 499K)
(57 pages; 499K)