Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a granular coal-like industrial by-product that is separated during the refinement of heavy crude oil. Recently, the processing of material from Canadian oil sands in U.S. refineries has led to the appearance of large petcoke piles adjacent to urban communities in Detroit and Chicago. The purpose of this literature review is to assess what is known about the effects of petcoke exposure on human health. Toxicological studies in animals indicate that dermal or inhalation petcoke exposure does not lead to a significant risk for cancer development or reproductive and developmental effects. However, pulmonary inflammation was observed in long-term inhalation exposure studies. Epidemiological studies in coke oven workers have shown increased risk for cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, but these studies are confounded by multiple industrial exposures, most notably to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are generated during petcoke production. The main threat to urban populations in the vicinity of petcoke piles is most likely fugitive dust emissions in the form of fine particulate matter. More research is required to determine whether petcoke fine particulate matter causes or exacerbates disease, either alone or in conjunction with other environmental contaminants.
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