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IAEA Laboratories Host Meeting on How to Track Oil and Paraffin Spills in Oceans


An emerging environmental problem, paraffin solidifies in contact with cool waters and can accumulate along beaches for several kilometres. In 2014 more than 50 tons washed ashore on the German island of Sylt. (Photo: M. Ludwig, Naturschutzgemeinschaft Sylt e.V., Germany)

Experts from 16 countries are meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) laboratories in Monaco this week to review the latest methods to detect the origin of oil and paraffin spills in the oceans, which pose a danger to marine life.

The annual meeting of the Bonn Agreement Oil Spill Identification Network of Experts (OSINet) is taking place from 25 to 27 April at the IAEA Environment Laboratories for the first time. The event brings together 35 representatives from government institutions, private sector organisations and universities that work on oil spill identification to discuss different techniques for tracing the sources of such an environmental hazard.  

The IAEA, which joined OSINet in 2014, provides expertise on a range of nuclear and isotopic techniques to gain a better understanding of ocean contaminants such as oil and paraffin. This helps countries to identify the source of spills and better plan remediation activities, and to determine where the responsibility for them lies.

“In the case of a collision or accidental release, governments need to know where oil or paraffin comes from,” said Imma Tolosa, an organic research scientist at the IAEA. “The combination of chemical and isotopic fingerprinting provides a powerful forensic tool which can be used by Member States for legislative purposes.”

The IAEA has worked for years on monitoring petroleum hydrocarbon and its derivatives in the oceans. It has developed methods based on stable carbon isotope and chemical signature analyses, which enable investigators to trace the origin of contaminants.  

An emerging environmental problem, paraffin is widely present in everyday life: it is used in waxes covering cheese, chewing gum, skincare products and candles, among others. It is transported in bulk as a liquid in heated tankers. Small quantities can be discharged at sea as tankers are washed down with water.

In contact with cool waters, paraffin solidifies and can accumulate along beaches for several kilometres. In 2014 more than 50 tons washed ashore on the German island of Sylt in the North Sea. Varying in size from several millimetres to more than 25 centimetres in diameter, large paraffin deposits can pose a serious threat to wildlife.

OSINet was set up in 2005 to help countries identify oil spills and develop standards for their sampling and identification. The network provides a forum for experts to create and validate new methods, and exchange information to promote quality assurance and cooperation among institutes working in this area, such as the RWS Laboratory from the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment in the Netherlands and the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency in Germany, among others.

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