Fossil fuels and petrochemicals may be making us sicker, research says

Fossil fuels and petrochemicals may be making us sicker, research says

“These chemicals may be invisible, but they are having visible impacts.”

HOUSTON - Fossil fuel combustion and plastic production has increased more than 15 times since the 1950s and resulting exposure is linked to rising rates of cancer, neurodevelopmental issues and infertility, according to a new report.


The new research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlights the concerns of chemicals derived from fossil fuels, specifically petrochemicals. Many of these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they can disrupt the body’s hormones. Petrochemicals can be found everywhere: in plastic water bottles, water filters, clothing, furniture, cooking ware and more.

The rise of these chemicals coincides with more illness: In the U.S., rates of neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer have increased between 28% and 150% between 1990 and 2019, according to the report.

This report is evident of correlation in which two things tend to occur at the same time and appear to not be by chance. However, it is not the same as causation and other types of studies would be required to prove causation.

“These chemicals may be invisible, but they are having visible impacts,” Tracey Woodruff, UC San Francisco professor and director of the EaRTH Center and Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and author of the paper, told Environmental Health News(EHN).

It’s not just the U.S. Over the past seven decades, chronic health conditions have been on the rise worldwide, coinciding with the rise in plastic production and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals can dysregulate hormones in different ways: they can alter the way hormones are built or how they move in the body and interfere hormone receptors.

The report notes a laundry list of health concerns associated with endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure: decreasing male sperm counts and harm to ovarian development, the development of metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes, hormone-sensitive cancers, like breast or testicular cancer; and neurodevelopmental issues like lower IQs or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among others.

As plastic production is expected to nearly double by 2050, Woodruff and colleagues write that these issues are expected to worsen.

Petrochemicals can be found everywhere: in plastic water bottles, water filters, clothing, furniture, cooking ware and more.

Credit: Unsplash+

petrochemicals health

“These chemicals may be invisible, but they are having visible impacts,” Tracey Woodruff, UC San Francisco professor and researcher

Credit UCSF

In addition, not everyone is equally exposed to these chemicals.. Communities of color are more likely to live at the fenceline of chemical facilities, increasing their exposure to fossil fuel and petrochemical pollution.

“These communities are also more likely to face other burdens like food insecurity, have lower incomes and insufficient access to medical care,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff said there are actions individuals can take to help decrease exposure. First, medical providers need to be more informed about the state of chemical regulation and their potential impacts on their patients’ health.

“Many clinicians are used to [the regulation of] pharmaceuticals,” Woodruff said. “If they are going to prescribe a drug to their patient, it is by law required to go through rigorous testing with animal studies as well as clinical trials. And it has to be proven both safe and efficacious before it can be prescribed to a patient.”

Additionally, Woodruff highlighted the need for reforms at the federal level.

“People think that the government is regulating everything and that’s not true,” Woodruff said. “It is really important for healthcare providers to speak out on behalf of their patients that there should be systemic change [for chemical regulation] through public policy, similar to pharmaceutical safety testing.”

Cancer-causing benzene levels were cut in half at US refineries in 2023: Report

Texas refineries, however, still have some work to do.

HOUSTON — The number of U.S. oil refineries exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for benzene in 2023 was cut in half compared to 2020, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project.
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
environmental justice pittsburgh
Credit: Kristina Marusic for EHN

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Environmental justice advocates gathered last week to celebrate progress and chart a path to the future while focusing on healing, self care and mental health.

Keep reading...Show less
powder river coal leasing
Credit: Jerry Huddleston/Flickr

Biden administration ends new coal leasing in Powder River Basin

The Biden administration moves to halt new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin, aiming to curb fossil fuel extraction.

Maxine Joselow reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's new grid rule deepens partisan divisions

A recent FERC initiative aimed at modernizing the U.S. power grid has intensified partisan disagreements, threatening bipartisan efforts for a comprehensive permitting overhaul.

Kelsey Brugger reports for E&E News.

Keep reading...Show less
Oil barge accident & spill
Credit: Patrick Feller/Flickr

Barge collision collapses Galveston bridge, triggers oil spill

A barge collision caused a partial collapse of a Galveston bridge, leading to an oil spill and the closure of the only road to Pelican Island.

Juan Lozano and Lekan Oyekanmi report for The Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

Rep. Jamie Raskin probes oil companies over alleged Trump donation meeting

Rep. Jamie Raskin is demanding details from oil industry leaders about a reported meeting with Donald Trump, where deregulation promises were allegedly exchanged for campaign donations.

Erin Mansfield reports for USA Today.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
air pollution pittsburgh

Amidst a controversial international sale, U.S. Steel falls behind in cleaner steelmaking

U.S. Steel’s proposed sale to Nippon Steel stokes concerns over labor rights and national security, all while the company continues to break clean air laws in Western Pennsylvania.

exxon houston petrochemicals

Spanish-speaking residents feel left out of permitting process at massive Exxon petrochemical plant in Houston-area

“It is important to ensure meaningful engagement efforts are inclusive and accessible to all diverse members of our communities.”

youth climate change

"Our lives might be on the line"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

sargassum

After 13 years, no end in sight for Caribbean sargassum invasion

Thousands of people were hurt by sargassum blooms last year in the Caribbean.

youth climate change

“We should take care of what is precious to us"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

earth day 2024

Earth Day reflections from the next generation

This week we're featuring essays from Houston-area eighth graders to hear what the youth think about the state of our planet.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.