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Oil Sands Responsible For Much Higher Levels Of Emissions Than Previously Thought, Report Finds

The oil sands of Athabasca are responsible for much higher levels of hazardous pollution and emissions than previously thought, according to a new report from University of Toronto Scarborough. The new research represents the most comprehensive work of its type ever done on the Oil Sands Region.

The assessment — performed with the aid of models that account for a number of indirect pathways for the release of PAHs that weren’t accounted for previously — shows just how damaging the unconventional form of oil production/extraction truly is.

Image Credit: Oil Sands via Flickr CCImage Credit: Oil Sands via Flickr CC

The work — performed by University of Toronto Scarborough Environmental Chemistry professor Frank Wania and his PhD candidate Abha Parajulee — was done by modeling the “emissions of a group of atmospheric pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),” the University of Toronto writes. “Many PAHs are highly carcinogenic. Children born from women who were exposed to PAHs while pregnant may have lower IQs, a higher risk of asthma and other issues.”

“When dealing with chemicals that have such great potential to harm people and animals, it is absolutely vital that we truly understand how, and how much they are being released into the environment,” explained Parajulee, the lead author of the new paper.

The University of Toronto provides more:

PAHs are produced during the process of extracting petroleum from the oil sands. Previous models have assessed only the PAHs that are released directly into the atmosphere during extraction. These numbers tend to fall within acceptable regulatory levels.

Parajulee’s model takes into account other indirect pathways for the release of PAHs that haven’t been assessed before. For instance, he found that evaporation from tailing ponds – lakes of polluted water also created through oil extraction – may actually introduce more PAHs into the atmosphere than direct emissions.

Parajulee and Wania’s model also factors in additional PAHs that are released during the transport and storage of other waste materials from oil sands operations.

“Tailing ponds are not the end of the journey for the pollutants they contain. PAHs are highly volatile, meaning they escape into the air much more than many people think,” states Parajulee. The higher levels of PAHs the UTSC scientists’ model predicts are consistent with what have actually been measured in samples taken from areas near and in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region.

“We need to take a holistic approach that includes both modeling and monitoring,” states Wania. “This is the single most powerful way to inform public policy and private management strategies for the region.”

The new findings were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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Written By

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.


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