How to Avoid Petrochemical Products

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Rachel Feltman: Happy Monday, listeners! This is Rachel Feltman for Science Quickly, but you’re actually not listening to our weekly news roundup.

See, crafting a news roundup that’s hot and fresh and ready to go first thing on Monday morning takes a lot of hustle on Thursday and Friday. We figured you’d understand why we’d rather avoid that over the holiday.

But we didn’t want to leave you hanging too long without a new episode of Science Quickly to enjoy, so I went and dug up a wild blast from the past for us to share instead.


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In June of 1924, which yeah was a 100 years ago, wow, Scientific American was publishing articles that are—kind of depressingly relevant today, actually. One piece reported on a conference at Yale meant to tackle the rising issue of traffic jams and automobile accidents. Another lamented the endless supply of food waste and other garbage coming out of 20th-century  cities, and yet another reported on our efforts to eradicate bedbugs. Isn’t it great to know that we’ve just solved all those problems! And definitely haven’t just made them worse.

But there’s a big beautiful data illustration near the front of the issue that really caught my attention. It’s called “The Family Tree of Coal Tar.”

The roots of this stately tree are shown to be planted firmly in black coal, and its branches split into a dizzying array of byproducts—which are then used to make an equally dizzying array of consumer goods. In 1924 Scientific American writers gushed over all the ways that coal tar derivatives might show up in your home. Here is a quote from the caption below the illustration:

“Delicate perfumes, beautiful dyes, drugs, fire-extinguishing solutions, motor fuels, powerful explosives, fertilizers—these are but a few of the many diversified products based on coal tar.”

These days, as more folks become aware of the environmental dangers that fossil fuels pose, not to mention their health risks. Their inclusion in everyday products gets a lot less publicity.

For instance, you might not be aware that most of the fabric fibers used in clothing today are petroleum-based or that about 99 percent of all plastics are derived from fossil fuels. Petrochemicals, which are chemicals made from fossil fuels, show up in many thousands of different consumer products, including everything from crayons to cosmetics. Because of that, petrochemical production is actually climbing even as we work to cut down on fossil fuel use to power our vehicles and homes.

And that’s—probably on purpose. Here’s a line straight from the website of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association that sounds a little too close to our friends from 1924 for comfort: “And don’t forget those diapers, pacifiers, and toys used by parents and babies around the world that are all made with oil or natural gas or both.”

That’s not just bad for the planet either. Research shows that these chemicals can affect neurodevelopment, impact fertility, increase the risk of cancer and contribute to metabolic diseases. And at this point, there doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid them. As the National Cancer Institute reported in 2010, “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’”

You might think, wow, this is obviously a problem worth tackling, so why aren’t we tackling it? but there are a lot of people quite literally invested in our continued use of petrochemicals. Basically fossil fuel companies know they’re losing the battle, albeit more slowly than they should be, when it comes to combustion engines and coal-powered electricity and all that jazz. Some of them are counting on plastics and other byproducts to make up the difference. The management consulting firm McKinsey & Company said in May that the petrochemical industry had a “basis for cautious optimism” in terms of demand in the near future.

Feeling ready to punch a hole in the wall? Same, but let’s be real, there are probably a bunch of petrochemicals in there, too. So let’s harness that incandescent rage as fuel in the fight against single-use plastics and other petrochemical end products. For starters, if you want to avoid putting fossil fuels on your face and in your body, keep an eye out for ingredients like mineral oil, petroleum jelly, paraffin wax, polyethylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate and isopropyl alcohol.

Of course, our individual choices won’t be enough to kick petrochemicals to the curb—or even keep them out of our everyday lives, because there are loads of them and they show up in everything. But it’s a start! And maybe your impassioned rant about the pervasiveness of petrochemicals will be the one that inspires the right person to kick-start a revolution or something. Listen, we gotta do what we can.

I don’t want to leave you on that infuriating note, so here’s an extra treat from that 1924 issue of Scientific American: apparently back then we had something called a “Psychic Investigation Committee.” And you’ll never guess what they investigated!

In June of 1924 Scientific American published the results of an experiment on the intersection of telepathy and radio, which was conducted by magazine staff in consultation with the committee. Basically a guy from Scientific American got on the radio and asked people to guess what he was thinking about in a series of categories like numbers and the names of department stores.

I have to say, the author of the study is at least pretty up-front about the fact that the results don’t prove any telepathic ability—the folks who got one answer right weren’t any more likely to get a second question right than the average respondent. But he still ended optimistically: “‘There are enough who got complete or partial successes on three separate items to make the hunt through the list for real telepathists quite worth while.”

So here is the real question, can you guess what number I’m thinking of right now? Just kidding! But you should send us your guess anyway because we’d love to hear from you. Just make sure you throw in some feedback or suggestions for topics you’d like us to cover while you’re at it. You can send us those messages telepathically if you want to try, but I’d recommend emailing them to ScienceQuickly@sciam.com, too, just to be on the safe side.I will say that I’m seeing some pretty awesome stuff in the future of your podcast feed. 

Tune in on Wednesday to learn about the wild horses currently taking TikTok by storm. And don’t forget to join us on Friday for the fourth and final installment in our miniseries on field research in Antarctica. Plus, our beloved news roundup will be back and better than ever next Monday.

Just one more quick request before I let you go, would you mind rating and reviewing the show wherever you’re listening to it. Whatever your favorite pod catcher app or platform is. We would so appreciate a five star rating, a comment, give us a little boost. And if you don’t quite feel like we are earning those five stars yet, shoot me an email at ScienceQuickly@sciam.com. And let me know what you would like to see change. 

Science Quickly is produced by me, Rachel Feltman, along with Fonda Mwangi, Kelso Harper, Madison Goldberg and Jeff DelViscio. Elah Feder, Alexa Lim, Madison Goldberg and Anaissa Ruiz Tejada edit our show, with fact-checking from Shayna Posses and Aaron Shattuck. Our theme music was composed by Dominic Smith. Subscribe to Scientific American for more up-to-date and in-depth science news.

For Science Quickly, I’m Rachel Feltman. Have a great week!

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multipurpose site for ROV ,drone services,mineral ores,ingots,agro commodities-oils,pulses,fatty acid distillate,rice,tomato concentrate,animal waste -gallstones,maggot feed ,general purpose niche -consumer goods,consumer electronics and all .Compedium of news around the world,businesses,ecommerce ,mineral,machines promotion and affiliation and just name it ...

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