Black Gold

—by Heidi Goar, HPC Member

“Jed, that thar’s black gold, Texas tea…”

While some love to criticize SUV drivers for their lack of conservation of a critical natural resource— petroleum—this indignation might be misplaced. Why? Because we are all, in some way, part of our “serious petroleum problem.” I am referring to the fact that petroleum is everywhere in our world today. For example, while it may be obvious when one thinks about it, we forget that all plastic is made of petroleum. Maybe you knew that, but it is hard to remember when you are chewing on your plastic cocktail straw mesmerized by the lovely looking and rather chatty number that just sat down next to you at the bar. Maybe I am overstating this. Only about 5% of petroleum used in America goes into petrochemical products such as plastics, vinyl, polyester for clothes and rugs, ingredients for household cleaners and fertilizers, etc. On the other hand, as a country we use a lot of oil, 840 million gallons daily, which means 42 million gallons of crude oil are used each day to make all the packaging, carpeting, socks, door handles, and blender covers we use every day. It’s interesting that petrochemicals are so prevalent in our world and yet we hardly notice.

If you have read some of my newsletter articles in the past year or so (“Honey, please pass the plastic” Oct/ Nov 2004 and “Oh Fab, we’re glad you use Dial” June/ July 2005), you know I am not a fan of petrochemicals (and who is, really, besides Dow?). But I sit here and look around my kitchen and dining room and realize that I wouldn’t recognize a world without them. Even more alarming is that the petroleum-based goods in my house are quite hidden from my casual glance. For example, during the bizarre hurricane season this year, the price of gasoline was nearly an obsessive topic. But my friend who is an upholsterer (a good one, too, so if you need one…) was doing some work for me and mentioned that the cost of the foam she uses in stuffing couches and chairs has gone up 50%! “Huh,” I thought, “of course it has; it’s made out of petroleum.” So is 20% of the “mohair” she is using to cover my 1920s chair (80% wool/20% polyester).

The other day, I was at a party and was served on a Styrofoam, or polystyrene, plate, a product made of 5% petroleum by-product and 95% air. At my day job (sociology teacher at a community college), the food service uses exclusively Styrofoam plates, bowls, and cups. I am shocked about it, but no one else seems to mind; and I am the only one who says anything about it as we order our daily specials.

I am sitting in my dining room writing this in an atmosphere soothed by lovely paraffin-based candles. Another petrochemical in my home! I had heard there was something about paraffin-based candles, but until recently, I did not know that paraffin

... is a by-product of the petroleum refining process. It is inexpensive and adaptable for use in candle production, and for these reasons it basically governs the marketplace. The soot given off from the burning of paraffin candles is essentially the same as that given off by burning diesel fuel. Some of the air contaminants in paraffin fumes include toluene, benzene, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and naphthalene.... [Keith: online reference is no longer available from]

As I look around my bathroom, and believe me, I am nearly obsessed with removing this stuff from my life, I see petrochemicals everywhere. Every product except one has at least one ingredient that contains “prop,” warning you that it is a petroleum product. While the “prop” term (used as prefix or part of a compound word) is a clue that the ingredient is petroleum based, that doesn’t mean that ingredients that don’t have “prop” are not petrochemicals.

[O]ver three thousand different ingredients are used in the manufacture of cosmetics, derived from petrochemical, animal, vegetable, and mineral sources, and there is no easy “rule of thumb” to give you to identify the natural ones. The best advice … is to start reading labels and looking up the ingredients in books such as Ruth Winter’s A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients....Two nonrenewable petrochemical derivatives that are practically inescapable—even in natural cosmetics—are methylparaben and propylparaben. [Keith: The reference at is no longer available.]

These "parabens” found in cosmetics are used as preservatives and help maintain the freshness and integrity of the product. They are added to kill bacteria and ensure a minimum of a three-year shelf life. However, I don’t know about you, but whenever they say something is not good for pregnant women, but fine for the rest of us (fish from northern Minnesota lakes, for example) I am suspicious.

Propylene glycol, a petroleum product used in place of glycerin, is common in lotions, hair care products, mascara, and even baby lotion. It’s a moisture-carrying ingredient, keeping the extracts that are good for the skin on the skin until they are absorbed. Other products that contain propylene glycol include antifreeze, laundry detergent, paint, shampoo, and conditioner.

You might have wondered why so many people are “uptight” about fragrances; one sees signs announcing that anyone wearing perfume should not enter. A friend of mine was on a plane when a woman in front of her put on perfume (sprayed it liberally so it showered everyone in a ten-foot radius!). My friend said something, but the woman was offended and, I suppose, wondered why my friend didn’t like “Charlie” or “White Shoulders.” But my friend has allergic reactions to the chemicals in the perfumes.

Elizabeth Lee Vliet, in It’s My Ovaries, Stupid!, says that "[e]xcept for very few, very expensive perfumes that use only plant-based compounds, over 95% of the chemicals used in today’s scented products are derived from petroleum-based compounds." (Vliet 2003: 346). The nine major chemicals for synthesis of aroma chemicals are turpentine oil, C2-C5 petrochemicals, benzene, phenol, toluene, xylenes, cresols, naphthalene, and cyclopentene. [Keith: the reference is no longer avaiable] You will probably not find this on the label as they can be listed as “fragrance.” Phthalates, another type of petrochemical that are suspected of causing health problems, make the scent linger longer (

Fabric softeners are laden with petrochemicals as they have both fragrance, often made from petroleum, and they need to latch onto the cloth, very effectively achieved using petroleum-based chemicals. They offer a double whammy because the chemicals are not only on the clothes, but they are also airborne through the venting systems in dryers.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides used in agri-business are primarily petroleum-based. While oilbased products have been in use since the 1940s, the practice was not widespread until giant farms began to take over the industry in the 1970s and '80s. The reason fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides are made from petroleum is the same reason petroleum is in your body lotion. It attaches to the things you want to stay put, so they don’t evaporate. So, a pesticide such as atrazine needs to stick to the corn stalk in order to work, and petroleum does the job nicely. It also sometimes kills the bugs, too (when it isn't making them stronger). The good news is, research is being done on using vegetable oil in herbicides instead, a shocking concept!

We are so dependent on petrochemicals in food production in America that we would, according to some, experience a fairly serious food shortage if we didn’t use these products. “The ‘green revolution,’ which has enabled the Earth to support so many more people now than in the past, is a combination of genetic engineering in plants, mechanization, and the petrochemicals provided by oil and natural gas.” ( These thoughts are echoed in George McGovern’s critique of the left in The Third Freedom, in which he suggests that we in the West are unconscious of what it takes to produce enough food for 6 billion people and that our critique of argibusiness is in some ways elitist. “If the fertilizers, partial irrigation [in part provided by oil energy], and pesticides were withdrawn, corn yields, for example, would drop from 130 bushels per acre to about 30 bushels.” (Fleay 1995 from

Then there are the clothes on our backs: Dacron, Gore- Tex, nylon, polyester..... I did a little “post-holiday” shopping for a new bathrobe. Have you shopped for nightwear lately? Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dick Cheney was in cahoots with Karen Neuburger, based on the polyester ratio of most of the lingerie. There was not one single 100% cotton bathrobe besides terry cloth in the massive store I was wandering through. But it's remarkable what they can do with petroleum these days! It’s so soft and comfy; definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Let’s not forget all the plastic in your car, in your cupboard, in your office. Our city streets are all made from petroleum. Unless you are living in the lap of luxury and can afford wool wall-to-wall carpeting, your carpet is petroleum based. Your computer is encased in plastic, and it takes approximately three quarts of oil to produce one new printer ink cartridge. ( And what about your phone, your space heater, your toddler’s toys, and the handles on your garden tools? We’re surrounded by petroleum!

I don’t really have much advice for you here except the obvious: read, read, read. Some good news is that research is being done on using corn and soy to produce a version of plasticizers. If they can pull that off, they will probably be able to use the same process to make other kinds of chemicals so they can make all these lotions and lipsticks and toilet bowl cleaners we think we need. Still, that day is pretty far off. And the chemical companies have been fairly successful in claiming that, while petrochemicals do enter our bodies, they are quickly broken down and eliminated. The best you can do is try to use as few of them as you can, and…drink a lot of water to wash that Texas Tea out of your system.

Additional Sources:

Fairley, Josephine. Organic Beauty. 2001: DK Publishing, London.

Vliet, Elizabeth Lee. It’s My Ovaries, Stupid!. 2003: Evans and Company, New York.

For a complete listing of chemicals found in common household products, as well as the effects of these chemicals, go to the Seventh Generation Web site and search for their "Chemical Glossary."