Petroleum-derived contaminants constitute one of the most prevalent sources of environmental degradation in the industrialized world. In large concentrations, the hydrocarbon molecules that make up crude oil and petroleum products are highly toxic to many organisms, including humans. Petroleum also contains trace amounts of sulfur and nitrogen compounds, which are dangerous by themselves and can react with the environment to produce secondary poisonous chemicals. The dominance of petroleum products in the United States and the world economy creates the conditions for distributing large amounts of these toxins into populated areas and ecosystems around the globe.
Workers using water hoses to clean oil from a beach following a spill. (United States Environmental Protection Agency. Reproduced by permission.)
Smoke is pouring from a refinery burnoff vent. (© Royalty-Free/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
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