Releases of toxic airborne volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from Alberta tar sands/oil sands mines are up to four times higher than mine operators have been reporting to Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory, according to researchers who took the first direct readings from the air column over the mines.
The discrepancy in reported pollution isn’t necessarily the operators’ fault. “Oilsands companies have indirect ways of calculating their mines’ estimated VOC emissions,” CBC News reports. “Methods include extrapolating from other substances they measure from smokestacks, or from emissions associated with a specific activity.”
Canadian federal government scientists instead “took measurements from a plane flown at various altitudes in a box-like pattern above oilsands mines.” Air samples collected by the specially-equipped plane were analyzed in a land laboratory, revealing VOCs at concentrations “two to 4.5 times higher than figures companies reported” to the Pollution Release Inventory.
The research flights took place in 2013, and the team published its findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It plans to repeat the sampling in 2018 to reveal potential trends.
According to an information page on the of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, VOCs include solvent vapours from paints and varnishes, and are found in fuels as well as solvents, degreasing, and hobby products. A short list of their effects include: eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, loss of coordination and nausea, damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system, visual disorders, and memory impairment. “Some organics can cause cancer in animals, some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans,” the EPA adds.
Other research has demonstrated that newer, in-situ bitumen mines—not only open-pit facilities—also release volatile organic toxins, and has tracked the plume of polluted air from the tar sands/oil sands region for hundreds of kilometres downwind across the Canadian prairies.