Friday, Jun 11, 2010 17:33 ET Boycott Big Oil? Prepare to give up everything
Shampoo, furniture, computers, vitamin capsules: Petrochemicals are
everywhere, even in you
By SETH BORENSTEIN, Associated Press


  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 thickener.

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

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: carbon.

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

"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 rubber.

"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, Collins

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 fuel.

"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

"It's a much more comfortable life now, much more convenient," Overton said.

Swift said trying to live without petrochemicals now doesn't make sense, but
he added: "it would make a good reality TV show."