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Air: Home Heating Oil Spills

Fuel oil is dangerous. That’s why it’s important to respond to fuel oil spills immediately. You can use the instructions on this page to clean up small drips and spills. For larger spills—those involving more than one gallon of fuel oil—hire a company that specializes in cleaning hazardous materials.

There are two types of home fuel oil spills: small and large.

  • Small spills can happen when a few drops of fuel oil drip out of tanks or pipes.
  • Large spills can happen when:
    • A basement storage tank is overfilled.
    • A tank overturns.
    • Someone accidentally puts fuel oil in a septic tank vent or well casing.
    • Someone tries to fill a tank that has been removed.

Large spills require professional cleaning.

Always respond immediately to fuel oil spills, no matter how small. How successful you’ll be at cleaning spilled fuel oil depends on how quickly you respond.

For example, fuel oil that soaks into concrete floors and wooden support beams—or that has time to flow into cracks or drains, or get beneath floors and walls—will be more difficult to clean. When the walls and floors become saturated with fuel oil, your only option may be to demolish and remove them.

If fuel oil left the house through cracks in the floors, drain tile systems, or sump pumps, you may need to schedule an environmental investigation to make sure you’ve cleaned it all. The investigation should include collecting soil and groundwater samples, and cleaning up contaminated soil and/or groundwater.

It’s also important to use proper cleaning methods, no matter the size of the fuel oil spill.

Prevent an explosion or fire

When cleaning up a fuel oil spill:

  • Don’t smoke or light a match in the area.
  • Don’t try to clean up spilled oil with a shop vac or other electric appliance or power tool.
  • Extinguish pilot lights on furnaces, gas dryers, and water heaters.
  • Keep all sources of ignition away from the area.
  • Turn off all flame and spark sources.
  • Turn off gas appliances that have electronic ignitions.

Open windows to control odors

When cleaning up a fuel oil spill:

  • Close all basement cold air returns and heat registers, including the basement door.
  • Close other openings that may let vapors enter the upper floors of the home.
  • Open basement windows to ventilate the area.
  • Ventilate the area with electric fans if your basement isn’t in danger of exploding due to fuel oil vapors.

You can usually clean up a small spill (anything less than one gallon) by yourself, but call a professional cleaning service if you need help, or if the fuel oil odor remains.

Prevent exposure

When cleaning up a small fuel oil spill:

  • Ventilate the area as much as possible during cleanup.
  • Wash exposed skin with soap and warm water.
  • Wear rubber gloves and old shoes or boots you can throw away.

Clean up the spill

  • Spread an absorbent material, like cat litter or sawdust, over the spill. Shovel the absorbed oil into heavy-duty plastic bags. Keep the bags outside until they can be picked up for disposal.
  • Remove anything porous that came in contact with the spilled oil and dispose of it properly if you can’t clean it. Examples include:
    • Carpeting
    • Clothing
    • Drywall
    • Flooring
    • Furniture
    • Wood
  • Clean the floor, walls, appliances, and other hard surfaces with soap and hot water. Check under appliances to make sure all oily residue is removed. You may need to clean these surfaces multiple times.

Cleaning up a large spill

For spills greater than one gallon, you’ll need professional help.

1. Report the spill

  • Call the oil delivery company to report the spill immediately if they were involved. If the company caused the spill, they may be asked to clean it up.
  • Report the spill to the Department of Natural Resources’ 24-hour hotline: 800-943-0003.
  • Call the local fire department to see if there’s an explosion risk. They also may be able to provide fans to ventilate the area.
  • You also may want to contact your local health department and home insurance agent.

2. Prevent exposure

  • Avoid breathing in the fuel oil fumes and keep skin contact to a minimum. Fuel oil contains many substances that vary in toxicity. Short-term exposure can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Long-term exposure can cause serious health problems.
  • Consider staying at a hotel or with relatives until the spill is cleaned up completely, especially if you have young children, older adults, or medically compromised people living in the home.

3. Contact a professional service to clean up the oil

  • Call your local health department or Department of Natural Resources office for a list of services in your area.
  • If fuel oil has escaped the building, you may need to call an environmental consultant. They may collect soil and groundwater samples to determine how much contamination occurred and how best to clean it up.

A fuel oil spill isn’t considered completely cleaned up until the odors are gone. That should happen within a few days if the spill is cleaned up correctly. If odors continue, there may be fuel oil remaining, such as in a saturated cinder block or contaminated soil.

Don’t use chemical air fresheners to mask the odor. Doing so adds other volatile chemicals to an already complex mixture and can cause problems for young children, older adults, or medically compromised people. It’s important that you’re able to smell any remaining fuel oil odor, and air fresheners can mask it.

Possible health concerns

Usually, short-term exposure to fuel oil won’t cause long-lasting harm, but breathing in the vapors in an enclosed space like a basement can cause symptoms. At high concentrations (like those involved in large spills), these symptoms can include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Eye, nose, or throat irritation.
  • Nausea.
  • Skin irritation (if fuel oil contacts the skin).

Exposure can affect people differently.

Even at low concentrations, the strong odor of fuel oil can make people feel sick. Getting fresh air usually helps. If symptoms don’t go away when you’re no longer near the vapors, see a doctor.

Long-term exposure to fuel oil in the home (exposure over the course of many years) can cause more serious health problems. These include:

  • Cancer.
  • Increased blood pressure or other blood problems.
  • Liver and kidney damage.

Remember that if you can smell fuel oil, you’re at risk of exposure.

Important contacts for fuel oil spills

  • The Department of Natural Resources’ 24-hour hotline: 800-943-0003
  • The local fire department
  • The local health department
  • The oil delivery company
  • Your doctor, if you have health-related questions
  • Your home insurance agent (your policy may provide financial help for cleanup or temporary housing expenses)

For more information, visit our Environmental Health home page.

Last revised April 14, 2023