“Explosive Growth” in Petrochemical Production Linked to Increases in Cancers and Other Diseases in New Report

Yves here. “Linked” is a slippery word in reporting, since it can imply the connection is stronger than it really is. Nevertheless, a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine documents the tie between the rise in petrochemical output, particularly plastics, and a host of ailments. For instance, the hormonal impact is striking.

By Cary Gilliam. Originally published at The New Lede

Chemical pollution tied to fossil fuel operations is not only driving harmful climate change but is also posing dire risks to human health at levels that require aggressive private and public efforts to limit exposures, warns a new analysispublished in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.

The article authored by Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), cites data from dozens of research studies highlighting what Woodruff calls a nexus between “explosive growth” in the petrochemical industry that includes forecasts for plastic production to grow almost three-fold by 2050, and data showing increases in cancers and other diseases in young people, particularly reproductive cancers in women.

Between 1990 and 2019, rates of neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and certain cancers are among the non-communicable diseases that have increased, with petrochemicals used in producing plastics and other products among drivers of the growth, according to the paper.

“Numerous medical societies, government agencies, and systematic reviews have concluded that exposure to chemicals and pollution… is an important risk factor for multiple diseases and health inequities and probably contributes to these increases,” the report notes, adding that increases in disease and petrochemical production at the same time “alone cannot be interpreted as causal.”

Doctors and patients need to acknowledge and address the risks, and work to reduce exposures, while regulators need to strengthen chemical evaluations and oversight, said Woodruff, who directs the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and the Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center.

“This is really important… one of the major factors driving climate change is also increasing our exposures to chemicals that are adversely impacting health,” she said. “Typically people say cancer is a disease of the aging, but now we’re seeing it increasing in people under 50.”

Altering Hormones

The use of fossil fuels and petrochemical production is more than 15 times higher now than in the 1950s, and production continues to climb despite growing use of renewable energy sources to power homes and vehicles due in part to a “boom” in production of single-use plastics, according to the new analysis. Plastic production, the analysis reports, is forecast to expand from more than 400 million metric tons to 1100 million metric tons by 2050.

“What we’re seeing in the fossil fuel industry is that they’re not decreasing the amount of fossil fuel production because they’re transitioning it into plastic production,” said Woodruff. “We know that plastic production is already impacting health and will continue to do so.”

Research has shown that many types of petrochemicals used in plastics and other products are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), a designation for substances that interfere with healthy hormonal function. Endocrine systemsregulate an array of key biological processes, including brain and nervous system development, reproduction, and metabolism and blood sugar levels.

People are being exposed to EDCs in a variety of ways, including through food, air and water contaminated with these types of chemicals. EDCs are used not just in plastics, but also are present in pesticides, building materials and cosmetics, as well as in many fabrics and children’s toys, according to the new analysis. People can be exposed in their homes, schools and workplaces.

EDCs are part of an overall pollution burden that has become the leading cause of premature deaths around the world, according to the analysis. Chemical pollution is estimated to be responsible for at least 1.8 million deaths each year, the paper states.

All of this plastic is laden with over 10,000 chemicals,” said Phil Landrigan, an epidemiologist who directs the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College. “These chemicals include carcinogens, developmental neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors and hundreds more that have never been tested for toxicity.  They leach out of plastics and they get into the environment and into people where they cause  a wide range of diseases  including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and infertility.

Action Needed 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that chemicals that disrupt endocrine systems can lead to problems with male and female fertility and fetal development in both people and animals. Even small disturbances to endocrine function, especially during pregnancy, can lead to “profound and lasting effects,” according to the EPA.

The EPA has been legally required to evaluate pesticides used in food for EDC properties for more than 25 years, but has fallen far short of the mandate. Last year the agency announced a new plan to try to more quickly and effectively evaluate whether or not chemicals were EDCs, saying it would prioritize roughly 400 pesticides for such review.

People of color and those living in low-income areas, or otherwise disadvantaged communities are often facing higher exposure risks than other people. The analysis cites data showing levels of EDCs in urine and blood of Black and Hispanic women “persistently higher” than levels found in non-Hispanic White women.

In January, report, Human Rights Watch highlighted what it said are an array of  health-related problems in predominantly Black communities in south-east Louisiana tied to oil and gas operations there. Also in January, Amnesty International reported that Hispanic and Black residents living along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas have been suffering a wide range of illnesses linked to more than 600 fossil fuel and petrochemical plants manufacturing plastics, fertilizers, pesticides and other products.

The paper published Wednesday calls for stricter safety testing of chemicals, more tracking of chemical exposures and full or partial bans on single chemicals and single-use plastics.

“We need to have government policies that ensure that chemicals that are being used and produced in the US are not creating toxic exposures to people,” Woodruff said. “This can really only be accomplished through improved public policies.”

(A version of this story was co-published with The Guardian.)

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  1. Societal Illusions

    Continued evidence of profit over precaution – do first to make a buck and worry about any outcomes or impacts later. And we’ve seen how incapable our legislative and legal systems are in clawing back profits to cover harms with reparations to the injured or envirnomental degradation, which impacts everyone.

    This is one aspect of capitalism that clearly doesn’t work: private “property” applied to the commons. Who owns the air and the water and the fruits of the earth is currently based on grants from sovereign and often the fortune of being born in the right place to the right parents at the right time to create advantage. Or whomever has been able to be successful operating within the system or gaming it more effectively than others as a secondary option.

    The indigeneous concept of land stewardship seems superior when it comes to long term health and vitality of a population. We have set our incentives up to only generate this outcome. We all know “government policies” are unlikely to be anything but protection of the status quo and loopholes for the profit makers.

    Perhaps the conspiratorial attacks on useless eaters aren’t the coincidence they are made out to be? Its easy to blame unintended consequences on outcomes until they are repeated over and over again. How do we explain that?

  2. ebolapoxclassic

    One thing that has puzzled me for a long time is whether there’s any solution to this problem from replacing the feedstock to the plastics. I always assumed that the endocrine disruptors present in plastic were unavoidable residues from the petroleum (or natural gas) feedstock, but that is apparently not the case. As I understand it, plastics produced, by whatever method, from biomass have more or less the same adverse health effects. Also, such “bioplastics” are not necessarily biodegradable, and biodegradable plastics can be produced from fossil fuels.

    There are probably commenters here who could shed more light on why this is the case. Are the adverse health and environmental effects something inherent to the polymer structure? (To my mind this seems unlikely, and also doesn’t rhyme with the fact that we can identify problematic substances which are impurities in the plastic, that is distinct from the polymer itself.) Or does any process that creates the polymers introduce the endocrine disruptors and other toxic substances as a byproduct?

    1. Revenant

      It’s inherent to organic chemistry, that is to say to the chemistry of the carbon atom and its capacity for forming carbon-carbon bonds (and to many other atoms, chiefly oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen), enabling us to build molecules like lego. But our reactions in the lab are not as precise as the “molecular tweezers” of Nature’s enzymes. So a lot of by-products arise that need to be removed and this is very expensive (not always achieved even in Pharma).

      However, many of the endocrine disruptors are deliberately introduced for their other properties, for example as plasticizing agents to make polymers more flexible during processing.

  3. BeliTsari

    We’d been discussing NS’s unnecessary release of lethal toxins, to clear the line through East Palestine, OH & Mayo Pete, on X, yesterday. How the consist was headed past Shell’s Cracker/ leaky 97mi ethane gathering system, huge ancient reactors, Hillary’s Swiss Toxic Waste Incinerator, NUMEROUS coal-fired plants (I used to inspect with retired B&W UT crews, dying from Mesothelioma) & THOUSANDS of fracked 8-well pads.

    We’d been discussing: gardens, fishing, hunting, foraging, organic & Amish dairy & vegetable farms & orchards (irrigated with aquifers, already affected by fracking). How long, did folks refrain from feeding their families with locally sourced, basically untested foodstuffs?


  4. BeliTsari

    Not exactly funny, per-se. Two ridiculously affluent communities (Latrobe & Fox Chapel, FAR away from the action) were tearing out groundcover & poor folks were pretty much in Denial, but NO venison kielbasa this year! The two roads were my favorite roadside frozen custard, ice cream & frozen yogurt jernts. I’d almost retired just south of there (until that Heritage-WTI Incinerator fired up). Great Abandoned interurban ROW & fishing!

  5. Lefty Godot

    Just remember, your poor health is your fault, due to your bad lifestyle choices, so just eat more fruits and vegetables and go to the gym more and do more mindfulness training and just for heaven’s sake think positively. Because microplastics, PFAS chemicals, bisphenol, pesticides, phthalates, and a hundred unpronounceable food additives have nothing to do with your cancer, arterial disease, or neurological symptoms, and big corporations have no responsibility for any of your problems. It’s all your fault!

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