The Enemy of Humanity and our Earth: Petrochemicals

Mifuyu H. ('21)

From cleaning agents to pesticides to perfumes, detergents, deodorants, and cosmetic products, while not forgetting new furniture and carpets. Virulent petrochemicals, derived from petroleum, are pervasive in everyday products. That’s right. In all of these mainstream products listed above, there are toxins harming the environment and our health. 

As consumers grow increasingly concerned about their hygiene issues, the cosmetics and personal care industries flourish. Hence, the issue of household petrochemicals has developed into a worldwide problem at an unprecedented speed. Yet ignorance prevails, as society fails to acknowledge this incontrovertible truth. 

What Are Petrochemicals?

Petrochemicals are substances originating from petroleum and natural gas. Mineral oil is one example of a petrochemical. When black petroleum is continuously refined it becomes transparent, this oil is the outcome. This is often what constitutes vaseline and lip balm. Johnson’s Baby Oil is also an example of mineral oil. Another petrochemical is a surfactant, typically used in cleaning products, shampoos, and cream. It diffuses water-insoluble or oil-soluble and water-soluble substances. Combining two heterogeneous substances yields a smooth softening surface, an ideal texture for skin and hair, in contrast to products made of solely oil-soluble substances. Surfactants being strongly penetrating and degreasing, they are notorious for being carcinogenic. 

Environmental Effectsーan endless cycle of pollutants

The usage of petroleum-derived products can usher in deleterious environmental impacts. Sewage, consisting of petrochemicals, is often disinfected with chlorine in the sewage disposal plant before it is washed away to rivers. In regions where sewage lines are not well-maintained, the contents of these lines directly discharge into rivers, exacerbating the tainting of water. The sewage, which is released into the ocean, cannot be purified and naturally aggravates the tainting of water.

The ocean water polluted by petrochemicals evaporates into the air and descends to the ground in the form of precipitation. The contaminated rain flows into rivers or groundwater. Then, it is purified in the plant. If the amplitude of water pollution is greater, more chlorine will be used to purify what will become tap water. 
These products also contribute to a global environmental problem: the vanishment of fish and coral reefs worldwide and eutrophication, menacing lucrative trade and fisheries. Toxins accumulate in the bodies of fish, particularly large fish who devour a legion of small fish living in polluted water. This will change the quality of the food we consume. 
As such, the repercussions will eventually come back to us in many facets of the lives of everyday people.  Air contamination has also burgeoned of an alarming degree. Based on research conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, the magnitude of air contamination indoors has exceeded that of cities. According to the Environmental Literacy Council, the burning of petrochemicals releases greenhouse gases such as ash, nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon into the atmosphere, causing smog, acid rain, and pollution. Dr. Anne Steinemann, a professor at the University of Melbourne with a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University, who has been researching chemical sensitivity for more than 25 years claimed in a 2018 interview, “If these chemicals are coming out of the smokestack or tailpipe, they’d be regulated, but if they’re coming out of an air freshener, they’re not. ( 

Health Effects

Aside from environmental consequences, these toxins trigger health problems. Inhalation and skin absorption are major routes for harmful synthetic chemicals to enter the bloodstream. Some toxins found in products such as “penetration enhancers” and nanoparticles are designed to penetrate the skin easily and rapidly. As opposed to the digestive system where toxins can be removed with excrements, there is no clear path to fully eliminate toxins once they are absorbed through the skin. Furthermore, our body repletes with waterー60% of an adult’s and 80% of an infant’s; after it enters our body, it is absorbed and circulated around the body. Due to this, our body is capable of disposing of solely water-soluble substances. Conversely, these water-insoluble toxins cannot be disposed of in our bodies, but instead, accumulate. This accumulation of toxins will one day exceed the body’s limit and precipitate tangible symptoms of illness. The severity of the adverse effects due to petrochemical exposure can range from allergies, atopy, and hay fever to depression, anxiety, birth defects, infertility, sickhouse syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity(MCS), intractable diseases, and degenerative diseases such as cancer. One way in which petrochemicals engender cancer is through water chlorination. What we are kept in the dark about is that this so-called purified water poses a cancer threat. The chemical reaction caused by combining tainted water and chlorine produces a carcinogen called trihalomethane. Tap water is growingly becoming hazardous. By using these products, you are not only making yourself susceptible to these risks but others around you as well. 

Among the list of manifestations, there has not been enough light shed on MCS. This is due to the fact that MCS, unlike the other symptoms, is solely caused by toxins often unknown to people. The slightest whiff of perfume is all it takes to trigger MCS, which is why it is also known as an invisible disability. This recondite chronic illness precipitates a gamut of debilitating symptoms: lassitude, headaches, nausea, vertigo, difficulty breathing, skin irritation, anxiety, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, asthma attacks. Patients with MCS have to build their life avoiding exposure to fragrance, with a potential solution being homebound, and isolated and lonely as a result. The legitimacy of MCS has long been questioned among the medical community. While proponents contend that it is a medical illness, skeptics argue that it is an underlying psychosomatic illness due to the dearth of scientific proof substantiating the cause-and-effect relationship and its overlapping symptoms with depression and anxiety. As of now, it is not classified as a primary medical illness either by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), nor the American Medical Association.

Covergirl Natureluxe,  Johnson’s Natural, L’occitane, LUSH Cosmetics, Kiehl’s, and The Body Shop: Are they toxins-free as they claim?

It would be a grave error to rest assure that consumers have it all taken care of due to their “better” choice of products. Think again. Many cosmetics companies besides listed above are errant of “greenwashing”, though repudiated to be beneficial. This deceptive marketing tactic misleads consumers to deem their products as toxins-free and environmentally friendly.  
Employing holistic packaging or store design, and over-embellishing or obscuring their commitment to alleged “greenness” by using words such as “natural”,  “organic”, or “botanical” are few of the methods. For instance, L’occitane en Provence states on their official website that they “strive to use high-quality, traceable, natural ingredients.” (,33,1,86476,1088231.htm) Meanwhile, its Five Herbs Repairing Shampoo consists of surfactants such as sodium laureth sulfate, decyl glucoside, PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate, and cocaidoprophyl betaine.  (,123,2,66349,1258091.htm)

Why does the Japanese government allow manufacturers to continue using toxins, ignoring its citizens’ long-term health and safety? 

What’s more, the industry is well-cognizant of the adverse health ramifications. International Fragrance Association lists all the fragrance toxins used by the industry on their website, yet does not stop enforcing strict rules on manufacturers. ( 
The corruption extends into our very own, Japan. A myriad of Japanese beauty advertisements drives consumers to buy toxic products. Sales of Japanese manufacturers, Shiseido, Kao, and others, reached over 1.6 trillion yen in 2017 and still on the rise, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry of Japan. ( The size of this industry’s economy incentivizes the manufacturers to continue producing while the government allows them. Japanese cosmetics are obligated to display a list of ingredients on the container under the ordinance of Pharmaceutical and Medical Devices Law. However, there are no laws anywhere across the globe including Japan, which requires a company to divulge the petrochemicals that make up each listed ingredient. Ignorant consumers are often unable to recognize the danger posed by using the product. Both the government and the beauty and personal care industry are exploiting self-regulated safety policies. 

A Step Forward

Recently, however, this issue was shed light on when Shabondama Soap Co., whose products are free from chemicals and synthetic additives, released an advertisement on Mainichi Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper. Despite the fact many are still oblivious to the danger, the advertisement caused a positive stir in society. Some tweeted, “I learned that I wasn’t the only one struggling with this!” and “This advertisement gave me courage!”

Educated consumers are key to change

These ad-too-large companies being questioned on their ethical stance. Can they be trusted? Despite Johnson & Johnson hiding behind the facade of vivid images of purity and innocence for decades, in December of 2018, its baby powder fell under criminal investigation across the United States due to lawsuits from 11,700 people. The company was accused of deliberately including asbestos, a carcinogen, in their products and therefore, a potential correlation to cancer, although they insisted otherwise. Late that December, the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, resulting in the payment of $4.14 billion in penal damages and $550 million in compensatory damages. ( Finally, these demons are being exposed and punished for their underlying sinister nature. It is our turn to make a footprint by becoming more educated to prevent ourselves from being easily deceived by veneers of multi-billionaire companies. 

Enforcing legislation of safety policies that abolish self-regulation, and enacting a more comprehensive law is possible but will be slow. Therefore, consumers must take responsibility for their own health and planet by choosing products fastidiously. If the demand for these deadly products decreases, companies will accommodate to the consumers’ needs and wants of petrochemical-free products. As demand for natural products increases, companies will saturate the market with such products, resulting in a decrease in price. The barrier consumers encounter in purchasing these products currentlyーthe priceーwill no longer be a problem, making them accessible to all.  

Therefore, the next time you purchase an everyday-use item, take a close look at the ingredient label. Examples of ingredients to avoid include petrochemicals ending with PEG, TEA, DEA, and BG. It is no longer a fledgling problem. If you are still unsure, ask yourself this question: do I want to live healthy longevity in the long-term or do I want to jeopardize my health and my planet to be frugal and redolent in the short-term? 

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