Oil Spill Information for Kids

By Meg Michelle; Updated April 24, 2017
Birds especially are in danger after an oil spill.

Oil spills are one of the worst environmental disasters. Spilled or leaked oil can contaminate water, making it unsafe for animals and humans who live near the accident. Luckily, we have figured out ways to help reverse some of the effects of a spill. There are also ways to help prevent such disasters from happening in the future.

Oil Spill Causes

There are four main causes of oil spills. Spills can happen through accidents, such as an oil liner striking rocks that cut a hole in the hull, allowing oil to spill out. They can also happen if equipment breaks down, such as a drill on an oil rig. Natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, can also damage equipment or oil holding facilities, leading to spills. The fourth cause is through intentional actions, such as vandalism or terrorism. Any of these causes could lead to major or minor disasters.

Effects on the Environment

Because oil and water don't mix, spilled oil sits on the surface of oceans, rivers or other bodies of water. Birds and mammals are particularly vulnerable to a spill. When feathers or fur are covered in oil, they cannot keep an animal warm, putting them at risk of dying from the cold. In addition, long-term exposure to oil can lead to the poisoning of plants and animals for generations. This can be particularly problematic in coastal areas, such as marshes, which can be very difficult to fully clean.

Cleaning Up the Spill

There are ways to clean a spill, but most have a downside. Chemicals are the main cleanup tool. Chemicals known as dispersants are used to break the oil into smaller pieces. Those smaller pieces can be broken down by bacteria that already live in the water. However, these chemicals can also be dangerous, further contaminating the environment. If there is enough oil, it can be burned, but that can lead to air pollution. Another way to clean the spill is by skimming oil off the top of the water, though the water has to be very calm. Perhaps the best way to clean a spill is to use machines that can separate the oil and water. However, if a leak is ongoing, such a machine may not be able to keep up with the rate of contamination.

How Kids Can Help

Spilled oil is not only harmful to the environment. It is also toxic to humans. Because of this, people who help clean up after spills are highly trained. If you can't receive that training, there are other ways to help. You can raise money through bake sales or yard work. That money can be donated to agencies that help with the cleanup, such as the National Wildlife Federation. You can also look for ways to cut down on oil use in your life, such as finding times to walk or bike somewhere instead of riding in a car. The less oil that is used, the less that has to be drilled and transported, cutting down on the chances of new spills.

About the Author

An avid lover of science and health, Meg Michelle began writing professionally about science and fitness in 2007. She holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Creighton University and master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins. Her work has appeared in publications such as EARTH Magazine.