India stands third in the number of global cancer cases. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, there will be a 12 per cent increase in cancer cases in the next five years. Petroleum pollution is one of the major contributors with increased risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, skin melanoma, multiple myeloma, leukaemia, and cancers of the prostate and urinary bladder.
Petrochemicals are groups of chemicals derived significantly from fossil fuel including coal, natural gas and crude oil. These are categorised into three types – basic, intermediates and other petrochemicals. The basic petrochemicals constitute synthetic fibre, synthetic rubber, polymers, synthetic detergents and performance plastics. The intermediate petrochemicals include fibre intermediates and building rocks such as olefins and aromatics.
Other petrobased chemicals are Diacetone Alcohol, Diethylene Glycol, Polycarbonate, Propylene Oxide, Propylene Glycol, Polyvinyl Acetate Resin. The crude oil by-products and other chemicals such as ethylene, polypropylene and benzene are used in manufacture of various daily use commodities – clothing, packaging, plastics, containers, furniture, cooking utensils, cosmetics, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and detergents. Petrochemicals have also found their way to the food industry, health and pharmaceutical industries, and the agricultural sector.
Manufacture and disposal of these products release harmful chemicals into the environment. Thus, people are unknowingly getting exposed to petrochemical by-products in their daily lives. Petrochemical products are also being used for renewable energy sources such as in solar panels, windmill blades, batteries and other important parts in electric vehicles.
Petrochemical industries play a major role in India’s GDP. In 2015 the petrochemical and chemical industries contributed 40 billion USD, which reached 187 billion USD in 2020. Though petrochemical production plays a key role in strengthening the nation’s economy, it is adversely impacting the environment due to its chemical by-products and their ecological toxicity. India produces 42.50 million tons of petrochemical products; this is projected to reach 49.62 million tons by 2025. Petrochemical industries play an important role in strengthening the country’s economy.
Recently, the Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare and Chemicals & Fertilizers announced that Indian petrochemicals and chemical industries will play an important role in reaching the $5 trillion target under the Atmanirbhar Bharat vision.
Although petrochemicals provide numerous useful products, they can also be harmful to the health of living beings and the environment. Petrochemicals share nearly 40 per cent of the world’s chemical market. Annually 2 per cent of global oil is used to manufacture petrochemical products. Synthesis and the usage of petrochemicals contribute to air pollution, water pollution as well as soil pollution. Wastes produced by these industries are another widespread environmental problem and are particularly difficult to deal with once a site is contaminated.
Petrochemical waste contains high amounts of organic and inorganic compounds, such as aromatic hydrocarbons, potentially toxic metals, synthetic dyes and phenols. Most of them are hazardous for health. When the wastewater generated from these petrochemical industries gets discharged into natural streams it can adversely impact the aquatic ecosystems. Homes near petrochemical industries have to endure chronic exposure to these hazardous chemicals through air, water and soil.
Residential proximity to petroleum facilities was associated with childhood leukaemia. The major pollutants are particulate matter, CO2, oxides of nitrogen, hydrogen sulphide, benzene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Emissions of Greenhouse gases are responsible for global warming; hydrogen sulphide causes acid rain. Exposure of PAHs at workplaces causes numerous types of cancers specifically of the skin, lungs, and gallbladder.
Occupational exposure increases mortality. According to the World Health Organization, even one microgram per square meter exposure of benzene in air can increase the risk of leukaemia to at least one person among 6 million. With the development of science and technology, the petrochemical industry has adopted different novel technologies which have improved production efficiencies, making it more cost beneficial. The petrochemical-based industries produce 7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emission and consume about 10 per cent of global energy. They also play a significant part in ozone layer depletions and acid rain.
With these global and local harmful impacts of petrochemicals, scientists are searching for green alternatives to petrochemicals. Many plant and algae based chemicals have been researched and found efficient enough to be alternatives to nonrenewable fuels. Dependency on petrochemicals has grown with time. The focus on sustainability and green technologies needs to be incorporated in techniques to improve existing products and minimize the waste produced.
Environment-friendly technologies, regular monitoring of generated waste as well as disposal of petrochemicals will reduce the risk of exposure. Regulatory policies need to be strict to ensure workers’ health and environmental safety, in order to reduce health hazards and to save the environment and its biodiversity.
(The writers are, respectively, an independent researcher and Dean at Jindal)