Fossil Fuels Aren’t Just Harming the Planet. They’re Making Us Sick

Petrochemicals are linked to diverse health problems from infertility to cancer, and now they’re building up in pregnant women.

A pregnant woman receives an exam from her doctor. Biomonitoring studies have measured at least 43 chemicals from diverse classes of chemical compounds in 99-100% of pregnant women in the United States. Credit: Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

A pregnant woman receives an exam from her doctor. Biomonitoring studies have measured at least 43 chemicals from diverse classes of chemical compounds in 99-100% of pregnant women in the United States. Credit: Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

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For years, researchers have warned that chemical pollutants tied to fossil fuels have become so pervasive that they would be impossible for anyone to avoid.

A study released earlier this week may be the first indication of how widely some chemicals have spread. Researchers found multiple classes of potentially harmful chemicals where they’ve never been measured before: in the bodies of pregnant women.

Those findings have helped spur a call for policymakers to act now to protect environmental and public health from threats posed by the close connection between climate change and synthetic chemicals, most of which are derived from petroleum.

Scientists have known for decades that babies can be exposed to industrial chemicals even before birth because these chemicals can cross the placenta.

“To a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted,’” scientists with the U.S. National Cancer Institute reported in 2010.

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The new peer-reviewed study, published Tuesday in Environmental, Science & Technology, found many chemicals that have never been measured before in pregnant women.

“We looked at chemicals from nine different classes, including things like phthalates and alternative plasticizers and pesticides and other chemicals used in personal care products,” said Jessie Buckley, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, “And we found that many of these chemicals were detected in all of the women in our sample from across the United States.”

Buckley said she and the team selected chemicals that are in classes, such as herbicides, insecticides, parabens and phthalates, that are suspected of causing adverse health effects in mothers and children. Now that they demonstrated exposure in 171 pregnant women nationally, they are launching a second study of 6,000 women to examine if there are potential health consequences for their children. 

She said they found “very widespread” exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides, newer pesticides that are replacing older pesticides of concern. Buckley said neonicotinoid pesticides, used in agriculture and in flea and tick treatments on pets, were found in the urine of almost every woman in the study.

Buckley said they also found higher concentrations of many chemicals like parabens, bisphenols and phthalates—found in things like shampoos, lotions, nail polish and water bottles—among Latina women compared to white women in the study.

“We can’t tell exactly from our study why these chemicals are higher among Latino women,” she said, “But we know that some personal care products and food packaging sources may be used more often among Latina women. And there’s also some disparities in terms of the chemicals included in products and the kinds of products that are used that are related to inequitable exposures.”

Many of the chemicals they measured are analogs or replacements for chemicals that studies suggest do have health effects, Buckley said. “And these replacements are sometimes very similar to their predecessors,” she said. 

Jodi Flaws, a professor of comparative biosciences at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who was not involved in the research, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings. “In fact, the recent study, as well as many previous studies, have identified chemicals in the urine from both pregnant and non- pregnant women,” said Flaws. “And a lot of the chemicals that we’re exposed to in the environment, we’re being exposed to ubiquitously every day through many ways. 

She said we know from animal studies and cell studies that a lot of the chemicals they found can interfere with the ability of the body to make hormones or respond to hormones. “And this often could lead to problems with reproduction, with development, with metabolism,” she said. 

Polluted Pregnancy

Figuring out what these chemicals do to the human body is a little harder to study—and guess why. “Because we don’t have controlled studies where you have a population with zero exposure because there’s just different ranges of exposure,” said Flaws.

And Flaws said some people are beginning to study why members of some ethnic groups are more exposed than others. 

“There definitely are racial, ethnic and demographic differences and the levels of chemicals that people have,” Flaws said. 

She said those differences may come from multiple sources such as the use of personal care products and dietary differences. Flaws also said socioeconomic status may play a role in exposure because some of the chemicals, like phthalates, tend to be found in larger quantities in older buildings where people in poverty often live.

Flaws added: “And so there’s some issues where we definitely know that these differences exist between populations, but trying to figure out why they exist, we’re not sure yet.”

Exceeding ‘Planetary Boundaries’

U.S. production of synthetic chemicals skyrocketed since World War II, jumping more than 15-fold by 2007. Global production nearly doubled between 2000 and 2017. Petrochemicals have so pervaded the marketplace that they’re now found in a seemingly endless list of plastic-fueled industrial and consumer products: building materials, carpets, yoga pants, fleece jackets, toys and baby products, cosmetics, fertilizers and pesticides, cars, food additives and packaging, to name a few. 

And now, faced with pressure to cut back on fossil fuels, researchers said in a webinar Tuesday, oil and gas companies are ramping up production of petrochemicals and plastics. 

“As fuel production decreases slightly, that increase is more than offset by the demand for plastics and petrochemicals,” said Marty Mulvihill, a chemist and co-founder of Safer Made, which funds efforts to reduce human exposure to harmful chemicals.  

More than 60 percent of oil demand is expected to come from plastics and chemicals in the next decade, Mulvihill said. 

That shift, researchers say, is not good news for health or the climate. Both chemicals and chemical production have a “significant” carbon footprint, with chemical manufacturing accounting for 18 percent of industrial carbon emissions, Mulvihill said. 

And in a dystopian feedback loop, the chemical production that releases climate-warming gases causes more pollution from industrial chemical facilities. More than 3,200 U.S. facilities that store hazardous chemicals are in areas at risk from climate-related natural disasters that include flooding, wildfire and sea level rise, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.  

A baby is pictured with the quote from the National Cancer Institute, "to a disturbing extent, babies are born pre-polluted."
Numerous environmental contaminants can cross the placental barrier, a President’s Cancer Panel reported in 2010. To a disturbing extent, babies are born “pre-polluted.” Credit: UCSF EaRTH Center Webinar

“We’ve seen this in Louisiana, we’ve seen it in Houston,” Mulvihill said. “After hurricanes, you have large chemical facilities, water treatment plants, other facilities near bodies of water that end up releasing large amounts of chemicals as a result of climate-exacerbated events.”

Chemical pollution, like climate change, is now exceeding what researchers call a “planetary boundary,” the environmental limits of Earth’s capacity to recover from human assaults on natural processes, said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center at the University of California, San Francisco. 

In the United States alone, Woodruff said, the volume of industrial chemicals produced each year comes out to a minimum of 30,000 pounds per person each year. 

“It’s inevitable that we are all going to be exposed to these many and varied chemicals that are being produced primarily from fossil fuel feedstock,” said Woodruff. 

Using natural gas components as petrochemical feedstocks is more lucrative than selling them as fuel or electricity, Woodruff said. “There’s a real financial incentive to use this feedstock.” 

ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil and gas producers in the world, is now the biggest producer of phthalates, a petrochemical feedstock that is also a hormone-disrupting chemical found in hundreds of products from pacifiers to medical tubing in the neonatal intensive care unit. That “new car” smell? It’s from phthalates. 

Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.

Phthalates are a classic endocrine-disruptor, Woodruff said. Higher levels of phthalates lead to lower levels of testosterone, which is particularly important for healthy male reproductive development. Phthalate exposures can cause birth defects such as undescended testes as well as reduced sperm counts. A large and growing body of research has linked the ubiquitous chemicals to obesity, diabetes, learning problems and reduced fertility. 

The American Chemistry Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment but notes on its web site that exposures to phthalates “are hundreds or thousands of times below levels of concern established by regulatory agencies.”

Most of the billions of pounds of chemicals produced each year were not tested for safety before they reached the market. Yet it’s clear that the vast majority of Americans are being exposed to a long list of petrochemicals and intermediate byproducts of natural gas production through studies that test samples of urine, blood, breast milk and hair. 

That’s because chemicals added to products don’t stay in those products. They escape into the air inside our houses and accumulate in dust, seep into the ground and waterways from landfills when we throw them away and travel as far as the Arctic on air currents from the factories where they’re made. 

“You can get exposed to these chemicals in drinking water, in your food supply, whether it’s pesticides or packaging materials,” said Woodruff. “Air pollution is another important source of exposure.”

Petroleum chemistry is based on all the carbon that hasn’t broken down over the last few million years, said Mulvihill. Should it surprise us that making small modifications to petroleum feedstocks produces chemicals that end up sticking around for a longer time? “The answer is no,” he said.

One class of petroleum-derived chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are so long-lived they’re known as “forever chemicals.” And they’ve contaminated drinking water supplies across the county. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency still does not regulate PFAS.

Exposure to these chemicals is not evenly distributed, starting with emissions that come from manufacturing plants, Woodruff said. “A lot of these facilities are far more heavily located in Black, brown and Indigenous communities.”

Those disparities extend to chemical exposures, too. Black women, for example, have higher exposures to phthalates from chemical-laden beauty products, Woodruff said, which researchers have linked to racist marketing practices that promote European beauty norms. 

Chemicals have often been in use for decades by the time researchers document their ability to harm people and wildlife. “We’re seeing a rise in a number of different chronic health conditions,” said Woodruff, “particularly in our more vulnerable populations, such as children.”

Toward a Safer Future

Woodruff has spent decades studying how environmental pollutants harm children. The science has long been clear that regulators need to do more to protect the most vulnerable, Woodruff said in an interview. But now there’s an opportunity to help consumers and policymakers understand the scope of threats from environmental exposures, she said, because the fossil fuel industry’s investments in plastic production growth “will lead to us being exposed to more chemicals.”

And that is likely to exacerbate health disparities in communities that are already bearing the brunt of pollution from fossil fuel extraction and production, Woodruff said.

Yet there are clear paths policymakers can follow to reduce the harms caused by fossil fuels and chemical pollution, Mulvihill and Woodruff said.

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The Toxic Substances Control Act is the primary U.S. law that governs industrial chemicals in commerce. It’s administered by the EPA and a 2016 revision gives the agency “a lot of authority” to address chemicals, Woodruff said. 

The agency still does not regulate chemicals as mixtures, which scientists say is critical to understanding what people are actually exposed to. But the Biden administration agreed to look at exposures of communities bordering fossil fuel facilities in conjunction with potential exposures from consumer products, Woodruff told Inside Climate News.

“They are making a nod to acknowledging that people who live in those communities will have these emissions from facilities that are going to be co-exposures along with whatever they get in their products,” Woodruff said.

“When you look at the very large universe of chemicals that we have in society, you’ll see that if we’re going to make change rapidly, we need to start grouping them together,” Mulvihill said. “And rather than trying to either understand, study, ban or replace one chemical at a time, we need to start thinking about families of chemicals.”

That means putting the brakes on what scientists call “regrettable substitution.” When it’s clear that a member of one class of chemicals is found to cause harm—like bisphenol A, another classic endocrine disruptor used to make plastic water bottles and metal can linings that’s been detected in the urine of more than 90 percent of Americans—don’t just replace it with another chemical in the same class. 

Often, it’s possible to avoid hazardous chemicals altogether by simply redesigning a product. That’s what furniture manufacturers did. After decades of adding toxic flame retardants to upholstery to prevent fires from spreading, they ditched the chemicals in favor of naturally flame-resistant fabrics like wool.

For Mulvihill, the path forward is clear. “What does the future of the chemical industry look like?” he mused. You can call it green chemistry, he said, but it’s more important that whatever you call it, it does three things: protects human health, reduces environmental persistence and supports climate resilience. 

“That means decoupling chemical production from petroleum production,” Mulvihill said. “That means creating chemicals that are not persistent in the environment, and creating chemicals that are, in fact, safe for human health.”

There’s clear evidence that humans are influencing the climate of the planet and that this is directly harmful to human health, Woodruff told Inside Climate News. “Our goal,” she said, “is to provide additional data that motivates the change we need to switch our economy to something that’s focused on sustainable energy use and products.”