Search the LastingHealth website


March 11, 2024

Petrochemicals – what are they, and why are they a problem for our health? 

Thousands of chemicals are manufactured from fossil fuels including oil, gas, and coal. It’s estimated that there are 350,000 petrochemicals are in use across the world as production levels have grown dramatically since the 1950’s. Petrochemicals are used in the manufacture of thousands of everyday products, from cars to carpets, plastics, cosmetics, toiletries and fragrances, cleaning products, food additives and storage, and outdoor clothing. But why could they be a problem for our health? 


Petrochemicals and our health 

Research in this area has mostly relied on animal studies and human longitudinal observational studies, but in a new expansive systematic review of the evidence, the author draws our attention to the rising health risk of exposure to petrochemicals since they became widely used in the last century. The author highlights significant rises in the incidence of cancer including breast cancer, childhood cancers, diabetes rates childhood neurodevelopment issues. The report finds parallels between dramatic rises in cancer rates and other diseases and the rapid expansion of petrochemical use which cannot be explained by lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise alone. 


In another study researchers found a significantly increased risk of stroke and heart attack in people with pre-existing artery conditions had higher levels of microplastics in their fatty plaques in blood vessels. Whilst the action of these microplastic particles isn’t fully understood yet, it’s presence seems to increase the risk in some patient groups.

Why are petrochemicals a problem for our health? 

Some of the 350,000 petrochemicals currently in use are suspected to be endocrine disrupters, also known as EDCs. These are chemicals that can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system. EDCs can mimic the actions of hormone production and function of endocrine glands including the ovaries, testes, pancreas, thyroid, and adrenal glands. Once inside the body, endocrine disrupting chemicals can interfere with hormonal messengers in the body and change normal levels of hormones and how the body’s organs respond to them. For example, by changing instructions for sexual and reproductive development. 



Health effects of exposure to EDCs

We are exposed to endocrine disruptors throughout our lives at a level that can be detected in our urine, blood, and body tissue. We need a healthy endocrine system for our bodies to develop, thrive, and reproduce. It’s known that EDCs can accumulate in our body over time, even if we’ve reduced or removed the source of exposure. This is known as a body burden. A recent study found that the effects of exposure to environmental pollutants can be passed on from generation to generation. 


Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals has been linked to changes in neurodevelopment – both foetal and early childhood. EDCs have also been associated with reductions in levels of sperm health and earlier puberty in girls. Exposure to a widely used herbicide, glyphosate has been linked to higher risk of developing of non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma in workers who are routinely exposed to it. Concerns about exposure to another suspected endocrine disrupting group of chemicals, Bisphenol A (BPA) led to changes in the manufacture of baby feeding bottles. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been proven to disrupt the functions of the immune system, inflaming body tissue which can lead to the development of diseases. 


How to reduce your exposure to EDCs 

There are lots of ways to reduce your exposure to petrochemicals in your diet and products you use every day such as toiletries and cleaning materials. To help get your started we pulled together five easy steps to reduce your contact with everyday chemicals. 


If you are concerned about the effects of exposure to everyday environmental pollutants in children, please read our guide to reducing children’s exposure. 


Visit our News Section for more ideas about how to reduce your exposure to environmental pollutants. 




The information on our website should not be used as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. If you have any specific questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. is not responsible for the content of external websites. The inclusion of a link to a third-party website should not be understood as an endorsement. 


Lasting Health