Understanding the fate and transport of petroleum hydrocarbons from coal tar within gasholders

Coulon, Frédéric; Orsi, Roberto; Turner, Claire; Walton, Chris; Daly, Paddy and Pollard, Simon J.T. (2009). Understanding the fate and transport of petroleum hydrocarbons from coal tar within gasholders. Environment International, 35(2) pp. 248–252.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2008.06.005


Coal tars have been identified as posing a threat to human health due to their toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic characteristics. Workers involved in former gasholders decommissioning are potentially exposed to relevant concentrations of volatile and semi-volatile hydrocarbons upon opening up derelict tanks and during tar excavation/removal. While information on contaminated sites air-quality and its implications on medium-long term exposure is available, acute exposure issues associated with the execution of critical tasks are less understood. Calculations indicated that the concentration of a given contaminant in the gasholder vapour phase only depends on the coal tar composition, being only barely affected by the presence of water in the gasholder and the tar volume/void space ratio. Fugacity modelling suggested that risk-critical compounds such as benzene, naphthalene and other monocyclic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may gather in the gasholder air phase at significant concentrations. Gasholder emissions were measured on-site and compared with the workplace exposure limits (WELs) currently in use in UK. While levels for most of the toxic compounds were far lower than WELs, benzene air-concentrations where found to be above the accepted threshold. In addition due to the long exposure periods involved in gasholder decommissioning and the significant contribution given by naphthalene to the total coal tar vapour concentration, the adoption of a WEL for naphthalene may need to be considered to support operators in preventing human health risk at the workplace. The Level I fugacity approach used in this study demonstrated its suitability for applications to sealed environments such as gasholders and its further refining could provide a useful tool for land remediation risk assessors.

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