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What if it Rained Oil?

June 21, 2010
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Barb Checket-Hanks

Making “what if” suppositions doesn’t get the respect it deserves - not even from me. It makes me think of people like my sister-in-law, who seems to worry needlessly about things that might never happen. But what if some what-if scenarios came true?

There are certainly a lot of known results to worry about when it comes to the aftereffects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf - the effects of crude on marine life are sadly well known. What hasn’t hit the radar yet, it seems, is the effect the oil spill could have on air quality.

Why should this be a potential concern? Because so much of our weather comes from the Southern ocean waters. Consider the way hurricanes form. They grow off of warm, oceanic waters. What happens if those waters are entrained with crude oil?

It makes a person wonder. At the very least, it could mean that the oil could be delivered much further inland than would seem to be the case right now.

Moreover, what does it mean for the role of ventilation and air-cleaning technologies? For the health and well being of clients?

I am not a meteorologist. But it doesn’t take a great deal of digging to find this information. Google “weather,” “ocean,” and “rainfall.” From “Environmental Science in the 21st Century,” an online textbook, we can verify that “Water evaporated from the ocean eventually condenses as water droplets in clouds. If the cloud grows large enough, the droplets coalesce and fall as precipitation, mostly as rain, sometimes as snow or ice.” In addition, “74% of all water evaporated into the atmosphere falls as precipitation on the ocean, mostly in the tropics,” and “26% falls on the land.”

It would stand to reason that oil entrained in the ocean waters could become part of the air we breathe - though perhaps a very small percentage.

This is speculative. And it’s frightening. We certainly don’t want to be a Chicken Little; but it seems that the possibility is just high enough to at least think about strategies to deal with it.

Perhaps the best place to start looking is at the types of IAQ methods used in industrial applications that use oil, such as certain types of machining processes.

The best solution, of course, is source remediation, but that horse may already be well out of the barn. We have heard of one method of remediation using an absorptive material made from corn, which could be used to soak up the oil mess right from the ocean’s surface. Last we heard, it was still being studied by environmental agencies to judge of potential aftereffects, which are probably largely un- known, due to its newness.

It would seem to have great advantages over other chemicals proposed to be added as solvents. At least an absorptive media wouldn’t wind up back in the atmosphere.

We have already heard that people living or working near the spill have been able to smell it, which means it is airborne to some degree.

We can’t say for sure what the broad implications are, if any, for HVAC. However, we can imagine that if there is atmospheric fallout, so to speak, some customers could be affected more than others. We could assume that the homes and businesses closer to the coast would experience the ramifications more intensely.

We could assume that the oil will not behave like water. It’s possible that it would precipitate out and not enter into ventilation at all - or it could come out in condensation, leaving many surfaces grimy and somewhat slick.

That’s a lot of speculation, a lot of what ifs. I know. Now it’s your turn. What do you think of the probabilities of this scenario playing out? What would you do? How would your company respond? Let me know what your thoughts are.

Publication date: 06/21/2010
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