Chemicals and plastics don’t often come to mind when one thinks of products made from oil. Petrochemicals, made by ‘cracking’ oil, a process by which hydrocarbon molecules are broken apart, are the raw materials for a vast amount of products and materials. In particular, three main petrochemicals, ethylene, propylene, and butadiene, are the building blocks of modern society, providing everything from disinfectants to coolants to plastics. Without these vital oil-based derivatives, medical science, information technology, modern cityscapes, and a wealth of other aspects of modern societies would not exist.
The use, or more appropriately, over-use of petroleum has resulted in the chemical pollution of our atmosphere, soil, water, and even our bodies. By-products of oil, coal, and natural gas, such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, contribute to lung cancer, asthma, acid rain, and species die-offs, among a great wealth of other negative consequences. DDT and PCBs, two highly polluting petrochemicals that have now been banned in most nations, are highly toxic and bioaccumulative — they continue to persist in the environment long after their use has ceased. Even though DDT has been banned in most countries, it continues to be detected in large quantities in the breast milk of women worldwide.
Other petrochemicals are classified as endocrine disruptors: they alter normal endocrine behaviour by mimicking, affecting the release of, and reducing the production of female and male hormones in both humans and wildlife. Some of the effects include smaller human genitalia and wildlife being born with both female and male sex organs. We cannot replace petrochemicals entirely, at least not now; however, a transition away from heavy petrochemical use in favour of less polluting and less harmful practices will have many health-related and environmental benefits.
A sample of items that are made from oil:
Computer chips — Ink — Paint brushes — Telephones — Insecticides — Motorcycle helmets — Clothing — Tents — Shoes — Glue — Skis — Hand lotion — CDs — Rubbing alcohol — Credit cards — Crayons — Toilet seats — House paint — Movie film — Disposable diapers — Upholstery — Garden hose — Umbrellas — Milk jugs — Bandages — Antihistamines — Nail polish — Perfume — Luggage — Ballpoint pens — Aspirin — Carpet — Toys — Pesticides
Fortunately, non-petroleum-based alternatives exist for many of these items as more companies are creating products made from recycled, recyclable, organic, and non-synthetic materials. As consumers, we need to be increasingly diligent in selecting products that carry the least negative environmental and health impacts. Changing even the most seemingly insignificant action can result in significant environmental and health benefits, especially when compounded over a lifetime. Visit the Personal Implementation section of this website for more information.