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Frequently asked questions about domestic heating oil

What is heating oil?

Heating oil is a yellowish to light brown liquid fuel, consisting of a mixture of chemicals, known as hydrocarbons. Heating oil is produced from the distillation of crude oil. In the UK, heating oil is also known as kerosene or paraffin.

What is heating oil used for?

Heating oil is mainly used for central heating and hot water boilers in areas where there is no piped domestic gas supply.  The use of oil based heating in UK homes has substantially decreased since the Second World War due to improved electrical and gas supplies. However, it is estimated that currently 1.2 million oil and fuel installations in the UK are located in domestic properties[1], with kerosene being the fuel frequently used in domestic heating supplies.

How does heating oil get into the environment?

Heating oil is found in the environment most commonly as a result of accidental release from a residential heating oil tank, industrial site, or transport vehicle. There are no natural sources of heating oil.

How could I be exposed to heating oil?

Some chemicals in heating oil can evaporate easily, producing fumes, whilst others can pass through plastic pipework and enter the water supply. Therefore, if heating oil has been released into the environment near a building, there is potential for fumes to accumulate in ground floor rooms, particularly if unventilated, giving an oil like odour. Also, if drinking water pipes are made of plastic, over a period of time you may also notice that your water supply from taps, and/or shower units, become tainted, giving tastes and odours of oil.

If there is heating oil in the environment will it affect my health?

The presence of heating oil in the environment does not always lead to exposure. In order for heating oil to cause any health effects, you must come into contact with it (exposure). You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance or by skin contact. Following exposure to any chemical, the adverse health effects you may encounter depend on several factors, including the amount to which you are exposed (dose), the way you are exposed, the length of exposure, the form of the chemical and if you were exposed to any other chemicals at the same time[3].

It is generally considered that people can smell and taste heating oil at concentrations below those that are considered to cause health effects, meaning that you would usually notice the contamination and therefore avoid drinking or using the water.

Breathing heating oil vapour or drinking contaminated water may cause symptoms such as dizziness, headache and vomiting. Repeated skin exposure may result in skin irritation. However a short, one-off exposure to heating oil is unlikely to result in any long-term effects.

Anyone becoming unwell after being exposed to heating oil should avoid further exposure (for example stop using tainted water or using rooms which have an oil-like odour) and seek medical advice by calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647, or by contacting their General Practitioner (GP).

Can heating oil cause cancer?

Heating oil is not considered to be a cancer-causing substance (carcinogen) in humans.

Does heating oil effect children or the unborn child?

Exposure to heating oil affects children and adults in a similar way. Exposure to heating oil is not thought to affect the health of the unborn child.

How long could it take for drinking water and air to become contaminated following a heating oil spill?

There is no set time frame, as it depends on the amount of heating oil spilt, where the spill occurred and the type of soil at the property.

What should I do if I am exposed to heating oil?

It is generally considered that people can smell and taste heating oil at concentrations below those that cause effects to health. Therefore, it is unlikely that someone would be able to tolerate living in a property where the levels of heating oil (fumes in the air or taste and odour in water supply) would be high enough to cause any long-term risks to health.

However, if you are concerned about being exposed to heating oil, remove yourself from the source of the contamination. For example, refrain from using contaminated water for drinking, bathing and cooking, ventilate the property and reduce the time spent in rooms which smell of heating oil.

If you, or anyone who may have been exposed to heating oil, become ill, remove yourself from the source of contamination and seek medical advice by calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647, or by contacting their General Practitioner (GP).

Can I still use water that smells or tastes of heating oil?

If you can smell or taste oil in your tap water, this may be an indication that heating oil has entered your water supply. If this has happened it is advisable that you stop using the tainted water for drinking, cooking, bathing and showering, in order to limit your exposure to the contaminants. If the smell of heating oil in your water is very strong, you should also consider not using the water to flush your toilet and wash your clothes.

Why do I only experience symptoms when I heat water, a room or on warm days?

When the temperature of heating oil is raised some of the contaminants in the oil will evaporate more easily. Therefore, you will be breathing in a higher amount of chemicals when you heat rooms or contaminated water.

If you are experiencing any symptoms of exposure (for health effects please see “If there is heating oil in the environment will I have any adverse health effects?”), stop heating the water or rooms and seek medical advice by calling NHS direct on 0845 4647, or by contacting their GP.

When should someone evacuate a property?

An important question during a spill of heating oil affecting a property is whether or not to evacuate the residents affected.

There are currently no health-based standards for the concentration of heating oil allowed in water.

For air the health based standard currently used to trigger evacuation is 290 mg/m3. [4]

However several organisations (see Who should I contact about a heating oil spill? and Who could be involved?) will be involved in deciding whether evacuation is needed. This decision will be based on many different criteria and may be informed by a site visit, looking at any results of any chemical analysis carried out, as well as talking to those who live in the property. The decision will be specific to each event.   

When can someone re-occupy a property?

As with evacuation, there are currently no health-based standards for levels of heating oil in water to help in deciding when a property should be re-occupied.  Consequently, re-occupation should be decided on a site specific basis, by the lead agency, which would generally be the local authority.

For air contamination ideally re-occupation will take place when measurements are below 1 mg/m3.

However, if measurements are close to 10 mg/m3 and are falling towards 1 mg/m3, re-occupation could be considered depending on the circumstances at the property [5].

Who should I contact about a heating oil spill?

If a spill has occurred at your property or at a nearby property you should inform your local authority’s environmental health department and the relevant insurance company.

Generally the local authority will carry out a risk assessment to determine if there is any impact form the spill on the environment and/or public health, which is when they may choose to contact the Health Protection Agency.

It is important to contact your local authority and insurance company as soon as possible, in order to ensure that the spill is investigated and cleaned up as soon as possible.

Who could be involved?

Depending on the situation there are a number of organisations which could be involved in the event of a heating oil spill, including:

  • the local authority (council);
  • Health Protection Agency;
  • insurance companies;
  • Environment Agency;
  • water company;
  • environmental consultants; and
  • sampling or remediation contractors.

How long will it take to clean up a heating oil spill?

This will depend on site specific factors, for example how far the oil has spread, the quantity spilt and the method of clean up. For more specific time estimations please contact your local authority’s environmental health department or the contractors who are cleaning up the heating oil spill.

Who is responsible for cleaning up a heating oil spill?

This depends on the circumstances.  For further advice please contact your insurers if appropriate and your local authority’s environmental health department.

Who will meet the cost of clean up?

This will depend on the circumstances, however it may also be a good idea to contact your insurance company in case they need to be involved.

References

1) Lee P, Fitzsimons D (2005) An analysis of inland oil and fuel incidents in England and Wales.

2) Environment Agency. Control of Pollution (Oil Storage) (England) Regulations 2001 http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/topics/oil/default.aspx

3) HPA. Compendium of Chemical Hazards: Kerosene. www.hpa.org.uk/chemicals/compendium  

4) The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).  Jet propellant fuel 8 (November 2006).  Available online at: http://www.epa.gov/oppt/aegl/pubs/jetfuel_8_interim_nov_2006.pdf [accessed 26/07/2010]

5) Russell D, Jones AP, Davies PG, Harris L, Humphreys C, Wilkinson S, Duarte-Davidson R, Krishna CV (2009) Petroleum hydrocarbons, JP8 spillage, environmental contamination, community exposure and multi agency response. Journal of Environmental Health Research 9 (1)


Last reviewed: 27 April 2011