Blog | Hydrocarbon Harm: The Effects of Contaminated Water


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that eighty percent of pollution to the marine environment comes from the land. When people think of water pollution and its effect on marine life, the first sources that probably come to mind are large oil spills – the ones that make big news. However, a huge contributor to the problem is what’s often referred to as nonpoint source pollution, or polluted runoff, that spills, drips, and drops through construction and industrial sites, parking lots, fueling stations, and any other location that could be affected by stormwater runoff. This is a direct result of the use of millions of motor vehicles,  pesticides, and other toxic organic matter.

It may seem insignificant, but the next time you’re pumping gas, pay attention to the drips that fall to the ground when the nozzle is removed from the car. This happens for every vehicle that refuels, at every gas station, around the country and the world.  The next rainfall will sweep those remnants into the closest stormwater drain, making every day people a huge part of the problem.

Thankfully, it is just as easy to educate ourselves and be part of the solution.


What are hydrocarbons? 
Let’s get back to basics. Hydrocarbons are—unsurprisingly– a mix of hydrogen and carbon and a major component of organic chemistry that people use  in regular day-to-day activities, but in different forms. There are hydrocarbons all around us, but their other names are more recognizable
  • Natural Gas & Fuels – When someone  thinks of “natural” fuel sources, like methane, propane (gas grills), and even butane (lighter fluid), they’re thinking of one of the biggest categories of hydrocarbons, which are often used as lubricating oils and grease as well. 
  • Plastics – There’s no denying that plastic is everywhere. The plastic is made from petrochemicals, which are made by altering the way hydrocarbons are chemically composed.
  • Paraffin – Ever heard of a paraffin wax at the salon? Ever lit a candle? These are just some items that contain paraffin, which is made up of hydrocarbons. It’s even used to preserve food and serves a similar purpose in the medical field.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol- While not a pure hydrocarbon, isopropyl alcohol is an altered form of it that bonds to even more carbon atoms, and is often used in the medicine field in cleaners.  
  • Asphalt – When a hydrocarbon is heated, it will form tar, which then becomes asphalt with the addition of other ingredients. 
Environmental Impact of Oil Contamination
It’s clear that hydrocarbons, specifically oils and fuels, have a negative impact on our environment, but let’s take it a step further: what exactly are we doing to our water quality when we forgo protective stormwater BMPs? Once contamination makes its way through stormwater drains and into waterways – our environment is immediately impacted. 


Animals are adapting – or dying.
To the many organisms that call our waters home, survival of the fittest is an unfair game when pollution is a player. Oleg G. Mironov of the Institute of Biology of the South Seas discusses at great length the biological consequences of hydrocarbon pollution. Many of these fish and floating organisms like zooplankton and algae are unable to avoid what Mironov refers to as “active contact” with the oil contamination, and are either injured severely or perish. This takes a significant amount of fish out of the population, many of which contribute to an otherwise robust commercial fishing industry.   

Creatures speedy enough to escape polluted waters may not die, but their altered migration patterns certainly cause a chain reaction in the rest of the ecosystem (starting with what they eat, and eats them), which is forced to adjust as well. 


That includes us humans, too.
Most people can’t stand even the smell of these oil products, never mind drinking or showering in them. Numerous health concerns today can be caused by contaminated water. The Institute of Microbial Technology details precisely how contaminated water at different levels of toxicity can cause damage, especially to those most vulnerable: children, pregnant women, those with pre-existing health issues, and those living in conditions that impose health stress. 

From behavioral changes to physical sickness, the effect contaminated water has on the human population depends on toxicity and length of exposure. Oil contamination, per the Institute of Microbial Technology, can even affect us down to our cells, especially reproductive cells and even cancer cells.

Keeping our Water Safe from Hydrocarbons
So what can be done to keep harmful oils and hydrocarbons from making their way into our waters? Implementing stormwater BMPs at the source of the problem (in this case, the stormwater drains) is best management practice for Stormwater pollutants.   

One of the newest products available on the market for storm drain protection is the OX Oil SheenSorb, a high-capacity oil absorbent pillow. The SheenSorb is simple to install, by just attaching to the grate. After absorbing up to a gallon of oil contaminant, the skimmer can be easily removed by the 6 foot tether and safely disposed into a bucket. Any construction site, fuel station, or site looking for a cost-effective solution that complies with NPDES and SWPPP BMP requirements should consider adding the Oil SheenSorb to their project. 

The Oil SheenSorb is just one of many products available from GEI Works to help contain oils and hydrocarbons. If there is  a  stormwater drain in a heavily-trafficked area, chances are that drain would benefit from any one of our stormwater BMP products, depending on the size and scope of the site, including:
  • Over-Grate Drain Covers - easy-to-install grate covers that prevent stormwater runoff contamination before it enters the drain system.
  • Under Grate Filters - allow for a discrete, secure fit for heavy-traffic areas.
  • Catch Basins Inserts - a high-strength, all-in-one filtration system designed to solve all runoff requirements.
Unsure of which product will be the best fit for a project? Contact the product experts at GEI Works online or by phone at 772-646-0597 with questions or to get a quote. 

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