Fuel Oils



Fuel oils are a variety of yellowish to light brown liquid mixtures that come from crude petroleum. Some chemicals found in fuel oils may evaporate easily, while others may more easily dissolve in water. Fuel oils are produced by different petroleum refining processes, depending on their intended uses. Fuel oils may be used as fuel for engines, lamps, heaters, furnaces, and stoves, or as solvents. Some commonly found fuel oils include kerosene, diesel fuel, jet fuel, range oil, and home heating oil. These fuel oils differ from one another by their hydrocarbon compositions, boiling point ranges, chemical additives, and uses.

Fate & Transport

Some chemicals found in fuel oils may evaporate into the air from open containers or contaminated soil or water. Some chemicals found in fuel oils may dissolve in water after spills to surface waters or leaks from underground storage tanks. Some chemicals found in fuel oils may stick to particles in water, which will eventually cause them to settle to the bottom sediment. Some of the chemicals found in fuel oils may be broken down slowly in air, water, and soil by sunlight or small organisms. Some of the chemicals found in fuel oils may build up significantly in plants and animals.

Exposure Pathways

Using a home kerosene heater or stove, or using fuel oils at work

Breathing air in home or building basements that has been contaminated with fuel oil vapors entering from the soil

Drinking or swimming in water that has been contaminated with fuel oils from a spill or a leaking underground storage tank

Touching soil contaminated with fuel oils

Using fuel oils to wash paint or grease from skin or equipment

Health Effects

Little information is available about the health effects that may be caused by fuel oils. People who use kerosene stoves for cooking do not seem to have any health problems related to their exposure. Breathing some fuel oils for short periods may cause nausea, eye irritation, increased blood pressure, headache, light-headedness, loss of appetite, poor coordination, and difficulty concentrating. Breathing diesel fuel vapors for long periods may cause kidney damage and lower your blood's ability to clot.

Drinking small amounts of kerosene may cause vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, stomach swelling and cramps, drowsiness, restlessness, painful breathing, irritability, and unconsciousness. Drinking large amounts of kerosene may cause convulsions, coma, or death. Skin contact with kerosene for short periods may cause itchy, red, sore, or peeling skin.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that some fuel oils (heavy) may possibly cause cancer in humans, but for other fuel oils (light), there is not enough information to make a determination. IARC has also determined that occupational exposures to fuel oils during petroleum refining are probably carcinogenic in humans. Some studies with mice have suggested that repeated contact with fuel oils may cause liver or skin cancer. However, other mouse studies have found this not to be the case. No studies are available in other animals or in people on the carcinogenic effects of fuel oils.

There is no medical test that shows if you have been exposed to fuel oils. Tests are available to determine if some of the chemicals commonly found in fuel oils are in your blood. However, the presence of these chemicals in blood may not necessarily mean that you have been exposed to fuel oils.

Information excerpted from:

Toxicological Profile for Fuel Oils

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services