The petrochemical industry – part of chapter 2 of research study

The petrochemical industry is a subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry, specifically the oil and gas industries, as is clear from the definition offered by petrochemistry.eu1: petrochemicals are “[c]hemicals derived from petroleum [i.e. oil] or natural gas”. The same source points out that the petrochemical industry is a “major player in today’s economy and society”, which is something of an understatement considering that in 2011 the global petrochemical industry was valued2 at 600 billion US dollars and in 2012 it was valued3 at 609.3 billion USD; according to chemweek.com4, global “economic and chemical output growth should continue to accelerate in 2014”, and in the US alone, exports “of chemicals will grow 6.6% in 2014, to $205 billion, and a further 7.6% in 2015. Excluding pharmaceuticals, the surplus in chemicals trade will grow to $67.5 billion by 2018, up from $42.7 billion in 2013, an average of 9.6%/year.”

“The ubiquity of the products of the petrochemical industry is pointed out at The American Fuel and Petrochemicals (AFPM) webiste5 when the following is stated:

“Petrochemicals are used to manufacture thousands of products people use every day — just about everything not made from rocks, plants, other living things or metal.

“These products include everything made of plastic, medicines and medical devices, cosmetics, furniture, appliances, TVs and radios, computers, parts used in every mode of transportation, solar power panels and wind turbines.

“In fact, regardless of how you’re viewing this website — on a desktop computer, laptop or smart phone — the viewing device is made from petrochemicals.”

For a start, based on the above information from the AFPM, it is clear that the petrochemical industry manufactures, among many things, plastics, and plastics are the materials that predominantly constitute floating islands of rubbish – the ocean gyres discussed in 1.1.6; most of the landfill waste discussed in the same section is also a product of the petrochemical industry – as stated at discovermagazine.com6, “300 Million [was the] Projected global plastic production in 2010, in metric tons, according to a report[7] published by the Royal Society (U.K.)… Fifty percent of all plastic is made for disposable applications such as packaging; about a quarter goes into long-term infrastructure items such as pipes. More than 40 million tons become textile fibers like nylon and polyester.”

With such a widespread distribution of such products as listed by the AFPM above, it is unsurprising that, as the International Energy Agency8 points out, the “chemical and petrochemical sector is by far the largest industrial energy user, accounting for roughly 10% of total worldwide final energy demand and 7% of global GHG [green house gas] emissions.” These are significant percentages, and in light of the information above (sub-section 1.2.1) regarding the impact of the fossil-fuel industry that provides the energy for the petrochemical industry and severely degrades the ecology of the planet, as well as in light of the accompanying information above about greenhouse gases and climate change (sub-section 1.1.2), the petrochemical industry is by default of its energy-use alone deeply inculcated as a major culprit in the ecological crisis.

Some of the products of the petrochemical industry can and do cause serious environmental damage. Take, for example, the 1.5 million tons of fertilisers and pesticides that run into the Mississippi River, referenced in sub-section 1.1.6, along with the accompanying oceanic dead zone; these pesticides and fertilisers are among the products of the petrochemical industry, and as shown in the relevant sub-section above, they are used en-mass for global food production. It is worth pointing out that, as detailed in sub-section 1.1.7, the highly toxic but widely used Roundup from Monsanto is another product of the petrochemical industry.

At this point, reference to a scientific paper entitled “Unsafe Petrochemical Refinery Air Pollution And Its Environmental Impact Assessment”9, undertaken in India, will help shed some light on the realities of petrochemical refineries. Below are some noteworthy points taken directly from the abstract of the paper:

  • High levels of carcinogens have been determined from petroleum and chemical refinery air emissions.
  • Many of the chemicals discharged in to the atmosphere during the leakage periods were found particularly sever to children.
  • Petrochemical air sampling measurement reports show that during the course of gas leak there were about thirty toxic chemicals get discharged into atmosphere. These are common refinery chemicals such as benzene and bromo methane, which have been identified and monitored by using high volume air samplers after the gas leakages.
  • Chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon disulphide, bromo methane, Methyl Ethyl Ketene, Benzene, Toluene, h-Hexane, Methylbenzene, m, p-xylene and n-Nonane were found above safe limits. Benzene and hydrogen sulfide were 36 times and 33 times higher than safer levels prescribed by the pollution control standards of about 5000 μg/ m 3 .
  • Petrochemical air pollution effects severe health problems to the public who are exposed in the vicinity, particularly children. They suffer from chemical based chronic/acute diseases such as ulcer, allergic dermatitis, lung cancer, lever necrosis, brain damage, and premature death, lever and kidney problems.
  • The clinical symptoms of acute toxicity are vomiting, diarrhea, blood loss into the gastrointestinal tract causing cardiovascular diseases.
  • Toxic effects are produced by prolonged contact with airborne or solid or liquid petrochemical carcinogenic compounds even in small quantities.
  • Prolonged exposure causes ulcers, skin irritation and allergic dermatitis. Exposure to chemical dust emissions may cause perforation of nasal septum, corrosion of bronchopulmonary tract and lung cancers. In the kidneys, it causes tubular necrosis and may also damage the liver.
  • These carcinogenic substances produce adverse health effects on the workers and result occupational heath hazards. Public get affected non-occupational heath hazards especially, those people who are exposed in the vicinity.

One Indian petrochemical refinery under the spotlight might not be representative of all refineries, but it is impossible to deny the severity of petrochemical pollution, as shown in the study. A different source, however, does draw attention to the fact that the petrochemical industry is indeed responsible for extensive pollution: according to worstpolluted.org10, the Blacksmith Institute “has investigated polluted petrochemical sites in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and South Asia” – the number of sites occupying the Blacksmith Institute’s database is 75, with 2.2 million people potentially being exposed to the petrochemical pollution at and around these sites alone. The findings are that the areas surrounding the petrochemical sites investigated by the Blacksmith Institute

“are largely polluted by untreated wastewater and sludge being disposed of in surface water sites. Untreated waste from petrochemical sites can contain very toxic pollutants… The majority of investigated sites are contaminated by lead, but a large array of chemicals is found. These include, cadmium, mercury, volatile organic compounds, PCBs and oil or petroleum products. Health impacts from these sites include neurological damage, lung irritation and disease and forms of cancer.”

This information alone makes it impossible to dismiss the results of the ‘Unsafe Petrochemical Refinery Air Pollution And Its Environmental Impact Assessment’ study as a rare exception to the rule.

A long list of highly toxic chemicals is par for the petrochemical course, so to speak. Discovermagazine.com11 states that 93 percent of “individuals 6 years and older” whose urine was tested “contained detectable bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the manufacture of some plastics, in a CDC [Centre for Disease Control and Prevention] study published in 2007.” The source adds that four “million tons of BPA are produced each year. A National Toxicology Program report released last fall said there was “some concern” that exposure to BPA could lead to developmental changes in infants and children.” Americanlaboratory.com12 avoids such ambiguity when it states that BPA “has been implicated in having an estrogenic effect on humans. It also plays a potential role in disturbing the normal balance of other hormones in humans (such as the thyroid hormone) and can have a multitude of health effects related to this. In recent years, BPA has gained increased attention since baby bottles made of plastic can result in the ingestion of BPA by infants, leading to accumulation in tissues that can affect normal development.”

Other products of the petrochemical industry to raise toxicity alarm bells are 1) phthalates, “used widely in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys”13: in a study entitled ‘Environmental phthalate exposure in relation to reproductive outcomes and other health endpoints in humans’14, the conclusion was that “[m]any of the findings reported in humans – most of which have been in males – are consistent with the anti-androgenic action that has been demonstrated for several phthalates”; 2) Toluene, which according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry15 (ATSDR) is “used in making paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and rubber and in some printing and leather tanning processes”, adversely affects the “[e]yes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, liver, kidneys”, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention16 (CDC); 3) Styrene, billions of pounds of which are, according to the ATSDR17, “produced each year to make products such as rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, and carpet backing”, is known to adversely affect the liver, the nervous system, and the eyes, and which the ATSDR classifies as “Reasonably Anticipated to be a Human Carcinogen”; 4) Thylene, which is “one of the top 30 chemicals produced in the United States in terms of volume. Xylene is used as a solvent and in the printing, rubber, and leather industries. It is also used as a cleaning agent, a thinner for paint, and in paints and varnishes”18, accodring to the ATSDR affects the developmental system (effects during periods when organs are developing), the liver, the nervous system, and the kidneys; 5) Parabens, which are used as “preservatives in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, foods, and beverages”19, – in a 2012 study20 by a team at the University of Reading, it was “found that virtually all – 99 percent – of the tissue samples collected from women participating in the study contained at least one paraben, and 60 percent of the samples contained no less than five parabens.” This process of listing a petrochemical, the numerous products in which it is used, and the associated known health issues, could go on at length, and the ATSDR website is recommended for further reading if necessary. This list so far, however, should corroborate the following concerns raised in an article at americanlaboratory.com21:

“Many of these chemicals are released into the ground, and air, and water and can have adverse effects on our environment and human life. Depending on their use, since petrochemicals can be absorbed through the skin or might be ingested, they can accumulate in human tissues and organs such as the brain and liver and can cause brain, nerve and liver damage, birth defects, cancer, asthma, hormonal disorders, and allergies. We are still in the early days of understanding the adverse effects of petrochemicals on our health and environment.”

Considering that the sample of toxic petrochemicals listed above, as well as a plethora of other chemicals not commented on here, find their way into the environment due to the various products containing petrochemicals being disposed of into the environment at alarming rates, the following comment22 from Americanlaboratory.com23 is validated: “While the petrochemicals industry has provided us with many valuable products, petroleum-derived chemicals can also be hazardous and toxic to the health of living beings and the earth’s ecosystems.” Columbia University’s Kate Orff offers a succinct summative comment on the petrochemical situation; she speaks explicitly about America, but the petrochemical industry and its impact on the planet is ubiquitous and therefore the comment is relevant on a global scale:

“Americans know what the oil and gas and coal landscape looks like – but do we really? There is a hidden side to America’s material prosperity. Most of its harmful manifestations are literally invisible – benzene and dioxins “disappear” into the air, while waste chemicals are pumped underground into injection wells. PCBs, Mercury, and Lead, toxic in the most imperceptible but potentially devastating amounts, persist in our bodies, in river sediment, in soils.”

5 accessed 14 July 2014