February 2, 2015 8:45 pm
Updated: February 2, 2015 9:00 pm

10 things we don’t know about bitumen toxicity

A bitumen line from the Total E&P Canada Ltd. Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) facility in the oil sands fields north of Fort McMurray

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Ten things an unpublished government-commissioned study found remain unknown about the effects of oil and oilsands products in rivers, lakes and oceans:

1. Toxicology: Research on the biological effects of oilsands products is lacking. Report found no peer-reviewed articles at all.

2. Bitumen in water: There is little information on how bitumen, diluted bitumen or products used to dilute bitumen behave in water, including whether bitumen sinks or floats.

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3. Metals: Although bitumen has different heavy-metal concentrations and components than conventional oil, their behaviour in a spill hasn’t been studied.

4. Condensate: Not much is known on the toxicity of condensate — a lighter hydrocarbon used to dilute bitumen for pumping — once it enters a body of water.

5. Pathways: The mechanics of how bitumen and other oilsands products interact with organisms is unknown.

6. Air toxicity: More research is needed on the toxicity and deposition of oilsands hydrocarbons through the air.

7. Specific water bodies: Little research has been done on the effects of hydrocarbon spills specific to Canadian waters such as the Great Lakes.

8. Photo-toxicity: Studies should be conducted on whether chemicals in bitumen are made more toxic by sunlight, as happens with some hydrocarbons

9. Dispersants: More needs to be known about the interaction of bitumen, the environment and dispersants, which are chemicals sometimes used to break up and speed the decomposition of oilspills.

10. Ice: The behaviour of oil, bitumen and dispersant in the ice-choked, cold and dark waters of the Canadian Arctic is largely unknown.

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