You knew they're grotesque. You knew they're dirty. You knew they create massive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The Athabasca Tar Sands are an environmental calamity.
All that and more, the "more" part being the emission of noxious, organic aerosols.
The aerosols are minute particles, roughly 1/10th the diameter of a human hair or less, that are created when chemical-laden vapours from the mining and processing of bitumen react with oxygen in the atmosphere and are transformed into solids that can drift on the wind for days.
While researchers have long thought that the oil sands must be a source of such particles, the new results, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, show that their impact on air quality is significant and of potential concern to communities that are downwind.
“The oil spill lasted a few months, and the Alberta oil-sand operations are an ongoing industrial activity,” said Joost de Gouw, a Colorado-based research physicist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who led the oil-spill measurements.
“The take-away is that there’s more that’s emitted into the atmosphere than we’ve fully appreciated,” said Jeffrey Brook, an air-quality researcher with Environment and Climate Change Canada who participated in the oil-sands study. “There is a need to continue to improve our knowledge about where these emissions go.”
The researchers believe that many thousands of people living downwind of the Tar Sands are inhaling these invisible droplets with every breath, every day, year in and year out.
Scientists are still trying to understand the complex health effects those particles can trigger when inhaled, but they have been linked in previous studies to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.