Petrochemical proliferation contributing to rise in health problems

March 06, 2024Press Release
Plastic garbage illustration

A byproduct of fossil fuel production, petrochemicals are on the rise and exposures to these chemicals contribute to health problems, including cancer, according to an analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine, published March 6, 2024.

“Pollution is the leading cause of premature death globally, and petrochemicals are a major contributor,” says author Tracey J. Woodruff, PHD, MPH, professor and director of the UCSF Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center and the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.

People are exposed to petrochemicals via contaminated air, water, food, and products, including plastics, pesticides, building materials, and cosmetics.

Many petrochemicals are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which means they interfere with hormonal function and increase risk for adverse health risks including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and infertility. Examples of EDCs include PFAS in food packaging and fabrics and phthalates in plastics and consumer products.

Boom in chemicals, plastics behind increasing disease

“Fossil fuel (coal, oil, and natural gas) consumption and petrochemical production have increased over 15-fold since the 1950’s,” Woodruff writes. A major part of that explosive growth was from fracking. Additionally, “as part of petrochemical growth, plastic production is predicted to grow almost three-fold … by 2050.”

Meanwhile, “multiple non-communicable diseases have been increasing … over the last several decades. In the US, for example, the rates of neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer have increased between 28% and 150% between 1990 and 2019.” Numerous medical societies and studies “have concluded that exposure to chemicals and pollution, including EDCs, is an important risk factor for multiple diseases and health inequities and is also a likely contributor to these increases,” states the article.

Climate change exacerbates chemical exposures, health inequities

Exposure to EDCs is distributed unequally and contributes to health inequities. Climate change exacerbates exposures to and health impacts from EDCs. Another problem is that “EDCs can increase the risk of disease even at very low levels of exposure because of population-level factors that can increase disease susceptibility, including intrinsic factors (e.g., underlying medical conditions, life stage, genetics) and extrinsic (e.g., food insecurity, poverty, racism, discrimination) as well as simultaneous exposure to multiple EDCs,” writes Woodruff.

“Given these trends, it is essential for health care professionals to better understand the links between fossil fuels, petrochemicals and disease, and become more involved in stemming the tide of these climate change-related pollutants,” says Woodruff.

Clinicians can improve patient health by addressing growing burden of EDCs

Health care professionals can provide patient advice to reduce chemical exposures, including EDCs, but policy change is needed to reduce the health threats from EDCs. Woodruff says legal requirements for comprehensive safety testing of chemicals to ensure they are not harmful to the public before they are introduced to the marketplace as well as stronger chemical regulations are needed.

“Individual action can only go so far when dealing with something that has become ubiquitous like petrochemicals,” says Woodruff. “Clinicians can be important advocates to decarbonize and detoxify the economy to address the combined health threats of petrochemical EDCs and climate change.”

Article Title: Health Impacts of Fossil Fuel Derived Endocrine Disruptors
Journal: New England Journal of Medicine
Author: Tracey J. Woodruff PhD