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Petrochemicals’ Overwhelming Impact on Human Health

A viewpoint article to which a Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher contributed shows how fossil fuel pathways drive cancer risk and climate change.

In an article published in JAMA Oncology, a team of renowned public health professionals, including James Shultz, Ph.D., a member of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, highlights how petrochemicals are having a profoundly negative impact on health and have become a major contributor to cancer risks.

Chemical plant spewing smoke into the air
The petrochemical infrastructure, the authors note, is often inear communities with low socioeconomic status and limited political power.

“There’s a petrochemical processing pathway,” said Dr. Shultz. “Fossil fuels are extracted, refined, processed, transported, used and ultimately disposed of, and each step along the way poses additional health risks.”

Senior author Dr. Shultz, co-author Jodi Sherman, M.D., associate professor of anesthesiology and epidemiology in environmental health sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, and lead author, Leticia Nogueira, Ph.D., scientific director of health services research at the American Cancer Society, note that the petrochemical production system is densely interconnected, making human exposures commonplace.

Nobody is Safe from Petrochemicals

One widely recognized example is Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” a region with more than 200 petrochemical facilities and cancer rates up to 50 times higher than the national average.

“One of the points we make in the paper is that, due to discriminatory policies and practices, much of this petrochemical infrastructure – where we drill, frack, extract, refine and process fossil fuels and their derivatives – is in or near communities targeted for marginalization, communities with low socioeconomic status and limited political power,” said Dr. Shultz.

However, exposures are not limited to these high-risk regions. Petrochemicals are constantly being transported across the country via pipelines, trucks, trains and ships. The transportation component puts virtually everyone in the U.S. at risk.

The East Palestine Train Derailment

One prime example, cited in the paper, was the February 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was carrying vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, and the toxic smoke from a controlled release permeated the area for days. East Palestine is not a marginalized community. It simply was unlucky enough to be in the middle of an airborne toxic event.

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Dr. James Shultz.
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher James Shultz, Ph.D., warns of the petrochemical processing pathway in a JAMA opinion piece.

“East Palestine is not a petrochemical center, but suddenly the community experienced a derailment and raging chemical fire,” said Dr. Shultz. “Carcinogens may have seeped into the soil and the aquifer, and they could face higher cancer risks in the future. It reminds us that it’s hard to escape petrochemical risks.”

The paper notes that the petrochemical ecosystem generates risk in two ways: human exposure to carcinogens and acceleration of climate change. Every step along the extraction, processing and transportation pathway generates greenhouse gas emissions and propels climate change, which exacerbates the destructive potential of hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme events.

“This puts patients living with cancer at elevated risk,” said Dr. Shultz. “Climate-driven disasters can damage cancer centers, disrupt vital therapies like precisely sequenced radiation treatments, and displace patients with cancer from their homes.”

A Healthcare Culprit: Single-use Plastics

Petrochemical products are also a major health concern. Plastics are ubiquitous in healthcare.

“Healthcare uses a lot of plastics and single-use materials, so the petrochemical pathway often ends with us,” said Dr. Shultz. “We’re trying to save lives, but at the same time, a recent shift toward single-use plastics in healthcare means oncology professionals end up contributing to the very problems they are trying to solve.”

Dr. Shultz and his co-authors would like the healthcare system to find ways to moderate the use of plastics, but they would also like clinicians to be more aware of the potential ramifications and begin finding alternatives.

“Healthcare providers on the front lines are trying to save lives,” said Dr. Shultz. “They’re probably not thinking about the connection between consumption of disposable plastics in healthcare and corresponding impacts on climate change. Fortunately, there are programs, right now, that have taken effective steps to diminish healthcare’s reliance on plastics and disposable products. We need to do more of that.”

Tags: JAMA Oncology, James M. Shultz, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center