Jun 11, 2010 5:50 PM by Chris Welty
WASHINGTON (AP) - Has the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico got
you so mad you're ready to quit Big Oil?
Ready to park the car and take up bike-riding or walking? Well,
your bike and your sneakers have petroleum products in them. And
sure, you can curb energy use by shutting off the AC, but the
electric fans you switch to have plastic from oil and gas in them.
And the insulation to keep your home cool, also started as oil and
gas. Without all that, you'll sweat and it'll be all too noticeable
because deodorant comes from oil and gas too.
You can't even escape petroleum products with a nice cool
fast-food milkshake - which probably has a petrochemical-based
Oil is everywhere. It's in carpeting, furniture, computers and
clothing. It's in the most personal of products like toothpaste,
shaving cream, lipstick and vitamin capsules. Petrochemicals are
the glue of our modern lives and even in glue, too.
Because of that, petrochemicals are in our blood.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested
humans for environmental chemicals and metals, it recorded 212
different compounds. More than 180 of them are products that
started as natural gas or oil.
"It's the material basis of our society essentially," said
Michael Wilson, a research scientist at the University of
California Berkeley. "This is the Petrochemical Age."
Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor Ed
Overton, who works with the government on oil spill chemistry,
said: "There's nothing that we do on a daily basis that isn't
touched by petrochemicals."
When in the movie "The Graduate" young Benjamin is given
advice about the future, it comes in one word: plastics. About 93
percent of American plastics start with natural gas or oil.
"Just about anything that's not iron or steel or metal of some
sort has some petrochemical component. And that's just because of
what we've been able to do with it," said West Virginia University
chemistry professor Dady Dadyburjor.
Nothing shows how pervasive and malleable petrochemicals are
better than shampoo, said Kevin Swift, director of economics and
statistics for the American Chemistry Council, the chemical
industry's trade association. The bottle is plastic. The cap is
plastic. The seal and the label, too. The ink comes from
petrochemicals and even the glue that holds the label to the bottle
comes from oil or gas.
"The shampoo - it's all derived from petrochemicals," Swift
said. "A bottle of shampoo is about 100 percent chemistry."
Just add a bit of natural fragrance.
What makes oil and natural gas the seed stock for most of our
everyday materials is the element that is the essence of life:
The carbon atom acts as the spine with other atoms attaching to
it in different combinations and positions. Each variation acts in
new ways, Dadyburjor said.
John Warner, a former Polaroid scientist and University of
Massachusetts chemistry professor, called petroleum "fundamentally
a boring material" until other atoms are added and "you unleash a
textbook of modern chemistry."
"Take a very complicated elegant beautiful molecule, bury it in
the ground 100 million years, remove all the functionality and make
hydrocarbons," said Warner, one of the founders of the green
chemistry movement that attempts to be more ecologically
sustainable. "Then take all the toxic nasty reagents and put back
all the functional groups and end up with very complicated
The age of petrochemicals started and took root shortly after
World War II, spurred by a government looking for replacements for
"Unfortunately there's a very dark side," said Carnegie Mellon
chemistry professor Terry Collins. He said the underlying premise
of the petrochemical industry is that "those little molecules will
be good little molecules and do what they're designed for and not
interact with life. What we're finding is that premise is wrong,
profoundly wrong. What we're discovering is that there's a whole
world of low-dose (health) effects."
Many of these chemicals are disrupting the human hormone system,
These are substances that don't appear in nature and "they
accumulate in the human body, they persist in the environment,"
Berkeley's Wilson said. The problem is science isn't quite sure how
bad or how safe they are, he said.
But plastics also do good things for the environment, the
chemistry council says. Because plastics are lighter than metals,
they helped create cars that save fuel. A 2005 European study shows
that conversion to plastic materials in Europe saved 26 percent in
"Compared to the alternatives, it reduces greenhouse gases
(which cause global warming) and saves energy; that is rather
ironic," Swift said.
Still, chemists who want more sustainable materials are working
on alternatives. Another founder of green chemistry, Paul Anastas,
an assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency,
said: "We can make those things in other ways."
LSU's Overton is old enough to remember the days before
petrochemicals. There were no plastic milk and soda containers.
They were glass. Desks were heavy wood. There were no computers,
cell phones and not much air conditioning.
"It's a much more comfortable life now, much more convenient,"
Swift said trying to live without petrochemicals now doesn't
make sense, but he added: "it would make a good reality TV show."