This paper assesses the potential for direct long-term toxicological effects of exposures to oils in birds and mammals by tracing exposures and effects from the initial acute phases through the sub-chronic to the eventual long-term exposures.
The immediate effects of oil spills are physical, the oil acting on the plumage of birds or the fur of mammals. This causes a loss of entrained air and a concomitant reduction in buoyancy and thermal insulation. Animals that escape the immediate impacts may be isolated from their food supply and often ingest large amounts of oil while attempting to clean themselves. At the comparatively high dose levels involved, these exposures can result in toxicologically significant responses in many organ systems.
In the course of an oil pollution incident, the amounts of biologically available oils decrease steadily, and simultaneously the composition of the oils shifts towards those components that have low volatility, and that resist photo- and bio-degradation. As this occurs, the primary pathways of exposure change from direct intakes to indirect routes involving the food supply. Although laboratory studies often report finding some adverse effects, the dose rates employed in many of these studies are extremely high when compared with those that are potentially available to animals in the wild, and very few actually use weathered oils.
An assessment of the toxicological literature and of the available empirical data on the Exxon Valdez oil spill leads to the conclusion that long-term sub-lethal toxic effects of crude oils on wildlife in such marine spills appear to be very unlikely.