Risks of Petrochemicals

Petrochemicals pose a variety of risks to human health and safety, local ecosystems, and the global climate. The following are some of the most significant threats.

Human Rights

During the development stages prior to construction of a petrochemical facility, there is often an imbalance of power in decision-making and a lack of access to information for communities. Given the geographic siting of many of these projects, there can be a disproportionate impact on groups that are at heightened risk, including persons of African descent, Indigenous Peoples, coastal communities, and people living in poverty. These dynamics lead to circumstances where rights protected under international law are affected. For example, any project that may affect Indigenous Peoples, their ancestral lands, or resources in their territories must respect their right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).

Without proper access to information and meaningful opportunities for public participation, communities cannot voice their concerns or influence decisions about whether, when, where, and how petrochemical operations take place. The lack of transparency and absence of environmental democracy can deprive communities of agency and contribute to an environment of repression, in which the rights to freedom of expression and association are curtailed. Too often, environmental defenders and opponents of petrochemical facilities face intimidation and retaliation for speaking out, in violation of their rights to participation and protest.

A report co-authored by CIEL, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity, Formosa Plastics Group: A Serial Offender of Environmental and Human Rights, details the risks that the petrochemical and plastics industry poses to human health, human rights, local ecosystems, and the global climate, through a case study of one corporation’s activities. For more information on the human rights impacts of plastics throughout their life cycle, see this report by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics.

Human Health and the Environment

At every stage of their life cycle, petrochemicals pose risks that threaten human health, undermining the rights to health, water, and freedom from discrimination, among other human rights.

  • The extraction of fossil fuels used to make petrochemicals releases an array of toxic substances into the air and water, often in significant volumes. This is especially true for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas, which is a key component of petrochemical and plastic production and is also driving industry expansion.

  • These toxic substances have known human health impacts, including:

      • cancer

      • neurotoxicity

      • reproductive and developmental toxicity

      • impairment of the immune system

      • irritation to skin and eyes

      • impacts to sensory organs and the respiratory, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems

      • liver damage

  • Studies show that health risks for vulnerable populations such as children, infants, and pregnant people are particularly elevated in regions with expansive oil and gas production.

  • Petrochemical facilities are often located in, and therefore disproportionately burden, communities of color and low-income communities.

  • These facilities are also often clustered together, amplifying the risks and harms posed by their operations.

  • Beyond extraction and production, petrochemicals and plastics produced from them also harm communities and ecosystems when they are used, recycled, incinerated, or left as litter in the environment.

  • For more information on how petrochemicals and plastics affect health, read CIEL’s report, Plastic and Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.

Credit Mark Dixon, People Over Petro

Worker and Community Safety

Petrochemical facilities pose risks to plant workers and surrounding communities.

  • Petrochemical facilities are vulnerable to accidents such as explosions, chemical releases, and flooding, which threaten the health and safety of those on site or nearby, and can adversely impact air and water quality in surrounding areas. For example, in August of 2019, an explosion and fire at Exxon’s Baytown facility caused more than 60 workers to be treated for injuries. Some workers suffered from second and third-degree burns, fearing death.

  • Climate vulnerability compounds these risks in many cases, because petrochemical facilities may be located in areas with heightened risk of extreme weather events. This is true, for example, of facilities located along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, where climate-induced extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity.

  • For more information about chemical facility hazards, read the Center for Effective Government’s report, Living in the Shadow of Danger: Poverty, Race, and Unequal Chemical Facility Hazards.

Credit Maren Cooke

Global Climate

Petrochemicals pose a threat to our planet’s fragile climate principally because they are derived from fossil fuels. And plastics produced from petrochemicals contribute to climate change at every stage of their life cycle.

  • Fossil fuel extraction, transport, refining, and manufacturing are known sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving climate change globally.

  • Managing waste from plastics produced with petrochemicals also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, when plastic is landfilled, recycled, incinerated, or degrades in the environment.

  • One result of climate change is stronger, larger, and more frequent hurricanes, which, in the United States, often impact the areas along the Gulf Coast where petrochemical facilities are clustered. The consequence is a heightened risk of dangerous industrial accidents. For example, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused explosions and flooding at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. The plant produced liquid organic peroxides used primarily to produce plastic resins, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC and polyester-reinforced fiberglass, and acrylic resins. Six-foot floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey took out the plant’s power sources, causing a loss of refrigeration and degradation of organic peroxides. This then caused a series of explosions and chemical fires, exposing first responders and nearby community members to hazardous fumes that caused severe injuries.

  • For more information about how petrochemicals and plastics drive climate change, read CIEL’s report, Plastic and Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet and corresponding two-pager, How Plastic is Threatening the Climate and How it Can Be Stopped.