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10 Environmental Impacts of Oil Spills

By Elise Chan


What are oil spills?

Oil spills occur when petroleum products are accidentally released into the environment, often due to tanker accidents, pipeline ruptures, or offshore drilling incidents. These events can have devastating effects on ecosystems, wildlife, and human communities.


As one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, the Singapore Strait is highly vulnerable to oil spills. Singapore has experienced 8 major oil spills of over 700 tonnes, with the last notable event occurring in 2014.¹

An oily sheen on the water in between HarbourFront and Sentosa on June 17

Above: An oily sheen on the water between HarbourFront and Sentosa on June 17. Photo: ST/Lim Yaohui.


What are the potential environmental impacts of an oil spill?


1. Harm to marine wildlife

Kingfisher coated in oil on Lazarus Island

Above: Kingfisher coated in oil on Lazarus Island. Photo: Samuel Pua.


Marine animals are severely affected by oil spills. Oil coats animals' bodies, destroying the insulating properties of fur in mammals like sea otters, and the water-repellent abilities of birds' feathers, impairing their ability to fly, swim or hunt.


Otters rolling in sand to remove oil at Labrador Jetty

Above: Otters rolling in sand to remove oil at Labrador Jetty. Photo: Anne.


Toxic poisoning: Many components of oil are toxic to marine organisms. When ingested or absorbed, these chemicals can cause severe health issues or death in affected wildlife. Birds often ingest the oil while trying to clean themselves. 


2. Suffocation

Oil slick at Tanjong Beach on Sentosa.

Above: Oil slick at Tanjong Beach on Sentosa. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su.


Oil forms a thick layer on the water's surface, preventing oxygen and sunlight from penetrating below. This can suffocate fish, crustaceans, and plankton while also inhibiting photosynthesis (i.e. oxygen production) by marine plants, algae and plankton.


3. Habitat destruction

Mangrove trees on St John's Island with a strip of oil

Above: Mangrove trees on St John's Island with a strip of oil. Photo: Elise Chan.


Oil spills can destroy sensitive coastal habitats such as mangroves, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. The oil can smother mangrove trees and corals in the same way it impacts other marine life. This damage affects the entire ecosystem that depends on these habitats.


4. Food chain disruption

Dead fish at Tanjong Beach, Sentosa

Above: Dead fish at Tanjong Beach, Sentosa. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su.


When habitats are affected by the oil spill and can’t carry out their functions as well, there is a "bottom-up" effect. Smaller animals are impacted first, and this disruption works its way up the food chain, as larger fish and marine mammals consume smaller fish and plankton.


5. Impact on fisheries

Fish farm worker uses tarpaulin to prevent oil from entering the farm

Above: Fish farm worker uses tarpaulin to prevent oil from entering the farm. Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman.


Oil spills can contaminate the water in fish farms, leading to the poisoning and death of fish. This contamination results in significant economic losses for fish farmers and disrupts local food supplies.


6. Use of chemical dispersants

Worker spraying chemical dispersant on Lazarus Island

Above: Worker spraying chemical dispersant on Lazarus Island. Photo: Elise Chan.


Dispersants are often used to manage and treat oil spills. They break the oil up into small droplets that can dissolve in the water. However, studies have found that these chemicals interfere with the natural processes that break down oil, such as effects from sunlight, ground-level ozone and oil-eating bacteria.²


7. Impact on deep-sea environment


Denser oil and dispersed oil droplets can sink and penetrate deeper into the water column, affecting organisms at various depths. This oil can settle on the seafloor, contaminating sediments and affecting the habitats at the bottom of the ocean for a long time.


8. Contamination of in-land freshwater

Booms placed in canals at West Coast Park as a precautionary measure

Above: Booms placed in canals at West Coast Park as a precautionary measure. Photo: Desmond Lee.


Oil can travel through connected waterways, contaminating rivers, lakes, and groundwater. This can have an impact on drinking water supplies and freshwater ecosystems.


9. Soil contamination

Contaminated rocky shore on Lazarus Island.

Above: Contaminated rocky shore on Lazarus Island. Photo: Elise Chan.


Oil spills can seep deep into coastal soils, contaminating them for years. Even if the top layer of oil-contaminated sand is cleared, oftentimes, there is still oil deeper down. This can have long-term impacts on plant growth and habitats.


10. Air quality


Oil spills release harmful vapours and pollutants into the air, which may degrade air quality. In high concentrations, these vapours pose a health risk, particularly respiratory issues, to humans and animals.



What can you do?


Generally, oil spills contain chemical substances that may be toxic, so it’s best to leave the clean-up to professionals with the necessary protective personal equipment (PPE) and tools.


You can reach out to volunteer with local NGOs and government agencies who may have different needs for volunteers. 


Marine Stewards is collecting data to monitor the affected wildlife and measure the impact. Your sightings of affected animals and the oil situation are helpful, so do inform us by posting reports and sightings in our public facebook group, with the below info: 


1. Photo/Video + Credits

2. Date

3. Time

4. Location


You can also sign up to volunteer with NParks via gov.sg here:

They may enlist help if the need arises. 


In the meantime, follow our Facebook for updates!



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About Marine Stewards

Marine Stewards is a local non-profit organisation (NGO) based in Singapore, whose mission is to activate sea sports enthusiasts and empower them as citizen scientists, to contribute to marine conservation. Our pillars are the conservation of marine biodiversity, marine habitats, and address marine pollution threats to the sea in Singapore and regionally.




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References


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