What Are Hydrocarbons and Why Are They Bad?

Image of Oil pump that produces hydrocarbons

Understanding Hydrocarbons in Daily Life

Hydrocarbons may sound as exciting as watching paint dry or sitting through a middle school science class. In fact, the last time you heard the word “hydrocarbons” might have been in a middle school science class. Believe it or not, we interact with hydrocarbons practically every day. From fueling our cars to producing the building blocks of modern life, hydrocarbons are all around us. But don’t worry, understanding hydrocarbons is a lot less complicated than you might think.

What are Hydrocarbons?

Hydrocarbons are organic compounds composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. They are the simplest and most fundamental class of organic compounds. Due to the covalent bonding between carbon and hydrogen atoms, hydrocarbons are primarily composed of carbon-hydrogen bonds.

Hydrocarbons can exist in various forms, ranging from simple, small molecules like methane to complex, large molecules like crude oil. They are categorized into different classes based on their structure and properties.

Different Types of Hydrocarbons


Also known as paraffins, alkanes are saturated hydrocarbons that contain only single bonds between carbon atoms. Methane, ethane, and propane are common examples of alkanes. You likely recognize these words as types of fuel. Methane is used to power automobiles, ovens and water heaters. Propane is a liquid fuel used to power gas grills, fireplaces and even farming equipment.


Also known as olefins, alkenes contain at least one carbon-carbon double bond. Ethene and propene are examples of alkenes. Propene, not to be confused with propane, is another name for propylene. These types of hydrocarbons are used to manufacture resins and elastomers, basically any kind of rubbery material that can be stretched and maintain its shape.


Alkynes are hydrocarbons that contain at least one carbon-carbon triple bond. Ethyne, also known as acetylene, is an example of an alkyne. You likely won’t come across many alkynes in your daily life. They are used in welding torches and as a starting material for polymers like PVC piping.

Aromatic Hydrocarbons

These hydrocarbons contain a cyclic structure known as an aromatic ring, such as benzene. They exhibit unique chemical properties and often have distinct odors. Benzene is also used to make plastics, in addition to being an ingredient in lubricants, dyes, detergents and pesticides.

Are Hydrocarbons Dangerous?

Photo of Oil Spill on Pavement

As you can see, we would not be able to go about our daily lives without hydrocarbons. It is important to keep in mind that hydrocarbons are not always harmful. When stored and used correctly they enable us to drive our cars to the store or cook a meal at home. However, hydrocarbon leaks or spills can be dangerous to humans, wildlife and the environment.

The biggest risk associated with many hydrocarbons is flammability. Gasses like methane and propane can ignite and burn easily in the presence of an ignition source; fire, candles, etc. It is essential to handle and store hydrocarbons safely, such as using proper vessels like jerrycans.

Some hydrocarbons can be harmful to human health. Inhalation or exposure to benzene can cause respiratory issues, skin irritation or damage your eyes. In cases of prolonged exposure, over the course of years, hydrocarbons can cause cancer.

Improper handling or disposal of hydrocarbons can lead to pollution and hurt the environment. Spills or leaks of hydrocarbons, particularly into water bodies or soil, can contaminate ecosystems, harm wildlife, and affect plants. When you are near urban areas you might see smog in the sky—yep, smog is made of hydrocarbons!

Responding to Hydrocarbon Leaks

Once more, we would like to reiterate that not all hydrocarbons or even brief exposure to certain gasses presents immediate danger. Following safety regulations can minimize the risks involved with handling hydrocarbons.

There are steps you can take if there is a hydrocarbon spill or leak. First, make sure you are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) when dealing with a spill. Make sure to remove any equipment that can be damaged by, or exacerbate, the spill. If possible, try to contain the spill to a limited area.

When in doubt, we recommend calling our OPG+ Quick Response Team at (844) 444-8899. Our professionals can mitigate the risk of dangerous chemicals using our proprietary natural solution.

OPG+ is Standing By to Help

OPG+ can help clean up any spill that poses a risk to you and the environment. Schedule your 24/7 Quick Response Cleanup now!