Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Petroleum in Perfume

This is the seventeenth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday I wrote about author Lynne McTaggart’s new lyrics for Paul Simon’s old song, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” McTaggart’s stanzas for her “50 Ways to Leave Crude Oil” focus almost entirely on transportation, with good reason. In the U.S., close to 70% of all the oil we guzzle goes to moving us around, 60% of it to moving around on highways. Transportation is thus by far the biggest contributor to our oil addiction.

Still, there are many other ways in which petroleum spills into our daily existence. As McTaggart writes, “All of our modern-day lives are utterly intertwined with petroleum use.” Another author, Paul Blanc, MD, sheds light on why petroleum byproducts became ubiquitous as he tells a story of benzene in his book How Everyday Products Make People Sick:

  • "Shortly after World War II, the petrochemical industry discovered an effective way of ‘cracking’ gasoline to yield a number of by-products, including benzene. …. As postwar refining for automobile gasoline expanded exponentially, benzene was ever more abundant. In fact there was an awful lot on the market to be unloaded."

The petrochemical industry went on to develop numerous uses for benzene, despite its link with leukemia and fatal cases of anemia. Benzene can be found today in many consumer goods, including some perfumes and body care products. This pattern repeated with other petroleum byproducts, to the point that today, the website of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association features a chart boasting how many common products come from crude oil.

About ten percent of the crude used in this country feeds the manufacture of plastics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and a variety of other goods including cosmetics and perfumes. That’s why Lynne McTaggart’s post mentioned above goes on to suggest avoiding use of such products, including artificial fragrances. As Dr. Louisa Williams points out in her excellent volume Radical Medicine, 95% of the ingredients used in fragrances are synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum.

That makes eliminating artificially fragranced products from your life a great way to step a little further out of the petroleum economy. It’s also critical enough for health that I’ve written a separate post on my North Coast Holistics blog to delve more deeply into the dangers of using petro-based perfumes, and what we can do instead.

To cut the quantity of petroleum-based perfumes wafting into your life, here are some quick tips:
  • Generally, avoid products with the word “fragrance” in the label. It usually indicates the presence of synthetic and variously toxic chemicals in the product formulation.
  • Look instead for fragrance-free products or those that use ONLY true essential oils for scent (although even those can stimulate allergies or asthma in some people).
  • Apply this guideline not only to body care products, but also to cleaning products such as laundry detergent. More companies now make household cleaning products without synthetic fragrance; for instance, Seventh Generation has a complete line of unscented cleaners called “Free and Clear.”
  • Just say NO! to air fresheners, which must have the most oxymoronic name of any product on the planet as they are actually major indoor air polluters.

Following these tips can help cut petroleum use and protect your health. For further details, check this post. Thanks again to Lynne McTaggart for the inspiration, as well as to all the authors whose books provided information for this post.

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