A Petroleum Hydrocarbon: Environmental & Health Effects

risk management in the oil and gas industry

Posted on Nov 23, 2022 at 10:11 PM

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to environmental and human safety is petroleum hydrocarbon compounds. This is due to their high toxicity affecting human health and causing Environmental degradation.


This article will discuss petroleum hydrocarbon and the most important reasons for its uses over the centuries, whether on humans or the environment.


What is petroleum hydrocarbon?

Petroleum hydrocarbon is a term used to describe a large group of chemical compounds originally from crude oil. It is an acronym for total petroleum hydrocarbon (TPH).


TPH is referred to as hydrocarbon because almost all consist of hydrogen and carbon atoms bonded to each other in different ways. The objective is to provide various types of oil products.


Some petroleum compounds found in a hydrocarbon are benzene, kerosene, mineral oils, hexane, toluene, naphthalene, xylene, and fluorene, as well as other petroleum products and gasoline components. However, a sample of petroleum hydrocarbon will likely contain only some, or a mixture, of these chemicals.


Petroleum hydrocarbon compounds are categorised based on the number of carbon atoms present. Petroleum hydrocarbon compounds with higher carbon atoms are heavier and more likely to sink into the sediment. Conversely, petroleum hydrocarbon compounds with fewer carbons are not as prevalent in deposits, are more likely to float, and can evaporate. 


The categories, or ranges, into which a hydrocarbon has been classified are listed below:

  • GRO (gasoline range organics): typically refers to petroleum hydrocarbons that contain between 6 and 12 carbon atoms. 
  • DRO (diesel range organics): typically refers to petroleum hydrocarbons with a range of 10-20 carbon atoms.
  • ORO (oil range organics): typically refers to petroleum hydrocarbons with a range of 20-35 carbon atoms.

risk management in the oil and gas industry

How does petroleum hydrocarbon enter the environment?

Hydrocarbon compounds can impact the ecosystem through oil exploration, extraction, transportation, storage, refining and processing. In addition, accidents can be caused by oil leakage from pipes and tanks and oil tankers spilling into the oceans. 

We also mention repair operations in refineries, fields, and wells, in addition to the outputs of the industrial process and commercial or private uses, such as car & factory exhausts and power generation.


What happens to petroleum hydrocarbon compounds when they enter the environment?

Once hydrocarbon compounds affect the environment, they migrate from the soil to groundwater. String bacteria and microorganisms break down the mix into smaller parts.


After hydrocarbon compounds are broken down, some of them evaporate directly into the atmosphere, and they are compounds that contain only a few carbon atoms. While the heavier compounds remain in the soil for long periods, causing severe damage to the ecosystem and the life of living organisms. Once the earth has been contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbon, it will take several years to return to normal.


It should be noted that soil contaminated with hydrocarbons is of great concern. Hydrocarbons can cause increased fire and explosion risks, primarily when the resulting carbon gas collects in a confined space.


Not only that, drinking water and nutrients can be contaminated, causing health damage, massive land degradation, destruction of nutritious plants, habitats and their food, and waste of non-renewable resources. Despite all this, we cannot ignore that hydrocarbon compounds cause air pollution and reduce air quality due to smoke and fumes.


How are people exposed to petroleum hydrocarbon compounds?

Almost every day, all people are exposed to pollutants resulting from petroleum hydrocarbon from several sources, including:

  • Breathing polluted air at gas stations.
  • Chemicals during cleaning operations in homes and workplaces.
  • Certain pesticides.
  • Work in facilities and oil and gas fields.
  • Working in occupations that use petroleum products, such as paint.
  • Living near a facility station, oil field, oil production line, or near spills and leaks.
  • Drinking water contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbon compounds.
  • Touching soil contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbon compounds.

How does petroleum hydrocarbon affect human health?

Some petroleum hydrocarbon compounds affect the health of the nervous system. They may cause headaches or dizziness when exposed to high levels in the air. However, the symptoms may multiply to cause a nerve disorder called "peripheral neuropathy", consisting of numb feet and legs. The effect of petroleum hydrocarbon compounds on the immune system, skin, eyes, lungs, and blood.


A study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that: One petroleum hydrocarbon compound, benzene, is a carcinogen (causes cancer), and so is pyrene.


To reach more accurate research, some of them were applied to animals. The results showed the effect of hydrocarbon compounds on the functioning of the central nervous system, lungs, kidneys and liver. In addition, some petroleum hydrocarbon compounds have also been shown to affect reproduction and the developing fetus in animals.

risk management in the oil and gas industry

How can a person be sure they have been exposed to petroleum hydrocarbon?

No accurate medical test for a person exposed to a petroleum hydrocarbon compound. There are some methods to find out. For example, a person has been exposed to kerosene through the smell of clothes and breath. In addition, benzene can be measured in exhaled air, and a breakdown product of benzene can be measured in urine.


This applies to some other petroleum hydrocarbon compounds, which can be measured through blood, urine, breath, or some body tissues.

Some Recommendations To protect Human Health.

There are no regulations or advisories specific for protection from petroleum hydrocarbon. However, the following basic recommendations can be used to avoid some damage:


  • Reporting any oil spills or leaks in the environment. This is even if it is accidental, i.e. the leaked amount exceeds 10 pounds or more of benzene.
  • Avoid exposure to the products of the petroleum refining process. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set an exposure limit of 500 parts of petroleum distillates per million parts of air (500 ppm) for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.



Petroleum hydrocarbon compounds cause hazards to ecosystems and economic and human health. Therefore, it is necessary to study effective risk management in the oil and gas industry and develop serious solutions to reduce pollutants and the uses of these derivatives, whether to preserve the environment or the urban development of societies.


The London Premier Centre offers a measurement of hydrocarbon best practices course. Simply register now directly to see details and help find solutions.