Plastics: oily, toxic and out of control

Last week marks the two-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic oil-train car derailment; the crash caused a massive fire and multiple explosions, killing 47 individuals and destroying the homes of 169. Tragedies like this devastate communities and result in many lives lost. Our acceptance of such episodes epitomizes the extent to which oil is an omnipresent part of our economy and our lives. We rely on petroleum, or crude oil, to meet our transportation and energy needs, but also to create the products we use and grow the food we eat. And though we don’t always acknowledge it, oil’s power is always accompanied by risks to our environment and our health.

While we all know that pollution from cars and oil refineries is bad for the environment and human health, it is easy to overlook the many other areas of our lives that are saturated with petroleum. Oil-derived chemicals, also known as petrochemicals, are ubiquitous; clothing, toys, cookware, furniture, and personal care products all contain petrochemicals. Petroleum and petroleum-derived products can be dangerous to human health, because they contain toxic compounds such as Benzene, PEG, and BPA (and thousands of unpronounceable compounds). Environmentalist and activist Annie Leonard provides us with the mnemonic of “toxics in, toxics out” in her video The Story of Stuff. Petrochemicals have been linked to health problems such as cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects, and allergies.

Plastics and other oil-based materials are the basis of many cheap and convenient products. But is it really necessary—or safe—to have crude oil in almost everything we interact with and consume every day? Chemicals from these products leach into the environment and enter our bodies. Some chemical additives that are common today have been in use since the 1950s, but only recently have come under scrutiny for possible links to cancer, birth defects, or developmental disorders. The compound BPA, created in 1891, has been used in the manufacture of plastics since the 1940s, despite earlier scientific findings that BPA could mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. In the early 2000s researchers and regulators showed interest in further investigating the toxicity of BPA, but it was not until 2010 and 2011 that substantial bans on the chemical were enacted.

Our economy’s love affair with plastic products has its roots in World War II. Oil and chemical companies found the war to be lucrative for newly developed plastics and synthetic pesticides, and when the war ended, they introduced the same products and materials into the consumer market. Dow Chemical Company, for instance, originally sold Saran Wrap to the Air Force, but kept the product profitable by marketing it to homemakers for food storage.

The new array of consumer products offered promises of an easier life; a DuPont promotional slogan at the time promoted ‘better living through chemistry.’ These new pesticides, plastics, beauty products, and miracle cleaning products quickly became part of post-WWII life.  Unfortunately, no one really stopped to wonder how these amazing new chemicals would affect humans, other animals, and our environment.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the now-famous book Silent Spring, which shed light on the environmental and public health consequences of dangerous petroleum derived insecticides and herbicides. Carson focused on several synthetic pesticides (e.g., Dieldrin/Chlordane), but wrote most extensively on reckless aerial spraying of the DDT. That pesticide was responsible for the deaths of thousands of dead fish, birds, and small mammals; many humans exposed to DDT also became ill and/or died. Carson’s book helped expose how petrochemicals endanger our environment and our health, and disperse to far regions of our planet. Eliza Griswold’s 2012 piece in the New York Times entitled How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement eloquently details the influence of Carson’s work and the consequent brutal opposition from the chemical industry.

The prevalence of cancer, asthma, autism, learning disabilities, allergies, and birth defects linked to petrochemicals are all aspects of a shared problem that also threatens the health of our climate – our continued reliance upon oil. Just as we know that we need to wean ourselves off oil as a fuel source for transportation and energy, we also need to reduce our use of oil-based products in the consumer market. Neither transition is easy; the oil and chemical industries are politically powerful. And while it is their best interest to reduce environmental and public health safety regulations to maintain our oil-based economy, it is in our best interest to break from this toxic system and demand change.   

The change we need is, of course, partially underway. People can make personal choices in the consumer market, but ultimately we need to alter the flawed system in which we are stuck. While for some it’s easy to choose organic foods and petroleum-free beauty products, others lack the resources to buy expensive or niche products not widely available at many stores. We need large-scale solutions to make all products safe and affordable, and give the manufacturers reason and responsibility to continue developing oil-free materials. Transitioning to a clean energy economy and reducing our use of petroleum based chemicals in pesticides, plastics, and consumer products, will ensure a healthier and more equitable society.

Many organizations provide opportunities for individuals to engage with these issues and support stronger and smarter policies to protect citizens and the climate. The Environmental Working Group’s Take Action page includes petitions to sign and email messages to send to elected officials. The Natural Resources Defense Council also has an action page, which has information on protecting endangered species, reducing climate change, and building healthy communities.

Becky Robinson's picture

former intern, Business Partnerships Program

, Climate Solutions

Becky is a native Seattleite who earned her bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University studying urban sustainability, urban public health, and toxic chemical use in personal care products. Her interests include sustainable development, environmental and social justice, toxic chemical reform, and environmental/public health education and advocacy.

Becky is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Humboldt State University’s Environment and Community program. Her thesis focuses upon textual and visual messages presented to the public from companies and organizations involved with breast cancer awareness, in particular, how they minimize the importance of environmental causes. Prior to graduate school, she worked in the sustainability department at Virginia Mason Medical Center, providing project and administrative support to the department head.

In her spare time, Becky enjoys cooking, playing with her Samoyed Kodi, and making a variety of all natural personal care products.