Home heating oil spills occur when storage tanks develop a leak, are overfilled, or if the heating system malfunctions. Since heating oil tanks are often located in the basement, spills can result in contamination of the basement. Such spills are a safety hazard because fuel oil is combustible. Cleanup of an oil spill in the basement or other parts of your property can be very expensive. Odors from spilled oil can also make your house unpleasant to live in until the cleanup is completed. Sometimes the odors can linger well beyond the cleanup. Spills can contaminate soil and groundwater if the basement floor is dirt, the concrete is cracked or the spill is outdoors. 

If the tank is located in your basement, open basement windows to ventilate the area. Close the basement door and cover the gap at the bottom of the door. Close other openings that may allow vapors to enter the upper floors of your home. You should make every effort to seal off any air flow between the spill and the inhabited areas of your home to prevent fuel odors from absorbing into clothing, rugs and other home furnishings. You should act as quickly as possible to help lessen long-term odor problems. 

Avoid breathing the fuel oil fumes for extended periods and prevent skin contact. If you must enter the spill area, wear rubber boots, gloves and protective eyewear. If the odor is strong in the living area of your home, consider staying at a motel or with relatives until the cleanup is complete. Moving out of your home for a few days may be a good idea, especially if there are young children, elderly, or infirmed people in the home.

If the fuel odors persist after cleanup, VOC sampling and Diesel Range Organic (DRO) wipe sampling can confirm if contaminants are still present in the property and at what levels. It will also confirm what Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) (chemicals) are still present in the property. 

Home heating oil is less toxic than gasoline and has relatively low toxicity to humans. However, breathing fuel oil vapors for extended periods can still cause health problems. Typical symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Some individuals may be more sensitive to these effects. Skin contact can cause mild irritation. These symptoms are not long-lasting and will generally disappear when fuel oil odors are reduced. 

Air sampling is important if fuel odors are still present. Such testing ensures that potentially toxic ingredients in the oil are not causing a chronic health risk. 

The focus of the testing should be naphthalene, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes), butanes/butenes and total petroleum hydrocarbons, however, we sample for every chemical compound. 

If the fuel oil odor in the living areas of the house continues to be a concern even after the issue has been cleaned up, air testing will confirm whether the air concentrations represent a health concern.

The clean-up of a fuel oil spill is not complete until odors are gone.  If fuel oil spills are promptly and completely cleaned, residual odors should go away after several days. Persistent odors indicate a continued source such as saturated cinder blocks, contaminated soils, wood and drywall, sumps, or floor drains that need additional clean up.

The use of chemical air fresheners is not recommended. These products merely mask the fuel odor by adding other volatile chemicals to an already complex mixture. Their use may increase symptoms in sensitive individuals. 

The NJ and PA DEP states that brief exposure to fuel oil will not usually cause long-term harm.  However, breathing fuel oil vapors in an enclosed space like a basement can cause some short term symptoms.  At high concentrations, symptoms can include nausea, dizziness, and eye, nose, or throat irritation.  Getting fuel oil on the skin can cause skin irritation.  Some individuals may be more sensitive to these effects than others.  Even at low concentrations, the strong odor of fuel oil can still make many people feel ill.  

Very long-term exposure to fuel oil odors in the home (exposure for many years) has the potential for more serious health problems.  These include liver and kidney damage, increased blood pressure, other blood problems, and cancer.  A simple “rule of thumb” is if you can smell fuel oil, there is an exposure risk. 

Sampling methods:

  • DRO – Diesel  Range Organics – (wipes)  just tells you total number present  (48 hours TAT) 
  • TPH by 8015  (Total Petroleum)  – (wipes) #4 Fuel  Oil, Gas, Kerosene and  others (48 hour TAT) – Reports  total levels  of each hydrocarbon  detected
  • NJ or PA. DEP EPH  (Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons-NIOSH 1550) known  substance (1 Week)
  • Core  Sampling  – Drill into  the ground to take a soil sample (1 Week)
  • TO-15,   Volatile Organic  Compounds (VOC’s) – Verifies  all of the chemical compounds  detected in  the air  in the area  sampled. It will  also give you exact levels of what’s present and is it under the  US-EPA,  State-DEP,  State-Residential  and OSHA (PEL’s) Permissible Exposure Limits. It will also determine  what chemical  compounds are linked to the contamination. Air  sample  runs for  a total of  2 hours or 24  hours.