Oil spills at the petrol pump pose a health risk

Fuel spilled at petrol stations could contaminate groundwater, a new study shows.

Those drops of petrol that drip from the nozzle when you refuel your car could be damaging the environment, a new study shows.

Researchers with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, publishing last month in the online Journal of Contaminant Hydrology, examined the cumulative effects of these small spills.

The researchers estimate that conservatively, about 1,500 litres of fuel are spilled at a typical petrol station each decade. "Even if only a small percentage reaches the ground, this could be problematic because gasoline contains harmful chemicals including benzene, a known human carcinogen," says study leader Markus Hilpert.

He says concrete pads under the pumps can accumulate significant amounts of spilt fuel, which can eventually penetrate the concrete and escape into the soil and groundwater.

"When gasoline spills on to concrete, the droplet with eventually disappear from the surface. If no stain is left behind, there has been a belief that no gasoline infiltrated the pavement," he said. But his research has shown this belief to be incorrect. "Our experiments suggest that even the smallest gasoline spills can have a lasting impact."

The health effects of living near petrol stations have not been well studied. The researchers say it is urgently needed.

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