Perhaps one of the most prominent features at any type of oil refinery or chemical plant is a tall stack with a flame burning at the top. Individuals often refer to this as “the flame” or “the flare.”
The flame is an essential part of oil refinery safety, but there are always questions about whether or not the flame impacts the health of those around the refinery and how the flame impacts the environment. Here, we want to define what the flame actually is and discuss the potential negative effects it can have on health and the surrounding environment.
A gas flare, commonly referred to as a flare stack, flare boom, flare pit, or ground flare, is a gas combustion device used in major industrial plants. To be clear, these are not used only at oil refineries. We will see gas flares used at chemical plants and natural gas processing centers.
Even though the flare is a common site at oil refineries, the whole idea of a flare stack has long been controversial. In fact, most people do not actually know the true purpose of a flame at an oil refinery.
In industrial plants and oil refineries, flare stacks are used to burn off flammable gases released by safety valves when the system is over-pressurized. When a plant starts up or shuts down, the flare stack can also be used for the planned combustion of gases for relatively short periods of time.
At an oil refinery, gas flares are typically used for a variety of reasons, including startup purposes, maintenance, safety, testing, and emergency overflow burn-off. According to Exxon Mobil, flares are devices used to safely burn off excess hydrocarbon gases that cannot be recovered or recycled. They claim that these excess gases are burnt in an environmentally sound manner as an alternative to releasing vapor directly into the atmosphere.
However, we always encourage taking information from major oil refinery companies with a grain of salt. They have absolutely no reason to highlight the dangers of these devices, and we should not expect them to do so willingly.
The truth is that flares are going to release chemicals into the atmosphere, and many of these chemicals are known to be harmful to human health. This can include black carbon, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, benzene, heavy metals, and other particulates.
A simple Internet search of any of these chemicals released by flares will see that they correlate to significant health consequences, particularly for pregnant women. In fact, a study released by the University of Southern California indicates that pregnant women have a 50% higher chance of experiencing a premature birth if they live near a flaring natural gas or oil well.
Flares may also emit methane and other volatile organic compounds, as well as sulfur compounds and sulfur dioxide. These chemicals are known to exasperate respiratory diseases and asthma.
Numerous studies have indicated that fumes emitted by flaring can increase the greenhouse gas effect, thereby contributing to global warming. Additionally, flaring can affect wildlife by attracting insects and birds to the flame. Thousands of migrating birds are attracted to flames each year and killed as a result.