Slick but Savage

Greener Economy

Lydia is just a city gal hoping to make the world a greener and fairer place! Her column ‘Greener Economy’ will talk about some of the economic and political solutions that will help create a more equitable society as well as more liveable conditions for current and future generations.


Photograph: Daniel Beltrá from his book ‘Spill.’

Our modern lives have been structured around an overdependence on crude oil. Quite literally, most objects that we use on a daily basis contain at least one ingredient derived from it. Paint, fertilisers, clothing, petroleum ­­– you name it. What many forget is the myriad of ways in which the commodity harms our environment and people, especially the factory workers who provide these goods for us. Crude oil may have once been the driving force behind global development, but our world can no longer sustain the methods by which and the quantities in which we consume this limited resource.

A central impact arising from society’s addiction to crude oil is chemical intoxication from exposure to benzene. The blood-and-immune-system-related carcinogenic released during oil processing has been deemed ‘a major public health concern’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Acute side-effects from inhalation include narcosis, while chronic exposure is a well-established cause of respiratory conditions and leukaemia. Benzene is the most common cause of industrial poisoning in China, inducing 60 percent of all occupational cancer. Amongst victims are pregnant women, their unborn and the elderly. In 2002, 31 workers aged 17 on average, were diagnosed with benzene poisoning in a Hebei factory.

Human activities involving direct contact – oil extraction, petroleum processing, coal coking and manufacturing of industrial and consumer goods – lead to the most detrimental harm. Alongside carbon monoxide and methanol, benzene is also an air pollutant released during engine combustion of vehicles such as cars, trains and airplanes.

Though conservation organisations make many efforts to reduce impacts, the unfortunate reality is that most of our population is more focused on ways to make instant money rather than ‘greener’, more equitable money.

In reality, despite crude oil being the most volatile commodity on the market, our most powerful economies rely on it in measures beyond comprehension. Algeria and Iraq rely on fuel for 90 percent of total exports. Russia, regardless of its 27 percent currency plunge in 1998 caused by a dip in oil prices down to US$18 per barrel, remains the second largest exporter. The US consumes about 25 percent of the world’s crude oil for their gasoline, diesel fuel and heating.

Actual progress can only come through changing the belief that crude oil is a necessity in fuelling our economy. Some governments and corporations have recently taken action in their jurisdictions. Legislation in the UK controls the extent of atmospheric benzene pollution through a National Air Quality Strategy, Pollution of Surface Waters and Pollution, Prevention and Control regulations. The US has banned benzene from consumer goods since 1978. However due to our heavy reliance on crude oil, millions still suffer avoidable deaths every year globally with extensive exposure estimated to cause five deaths per 1000 employees.

The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, and the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s ‘Water Convention’, aim to control pollution internationally. Unfortunately, there remains a deficit in overall global participation, with only 38 countries having ratified the International Labour Organisation’s 1971 Benzene Convention.

Consequently, exploitation within big industries continues. Bribery of factory inspectors by businesses is an issue whereby ill workers and civilians remain unaware of their condition until terminally ill. Additionally, there lacks a mention of benzene in products we consume across all industries. Though certain clothing brands (mostly footwear) have strictly banned benzene from their products, proving benzene exposure is avoidable, larger brands such as Apple, HP and Samsung fail to make mention of the petrochemical in manufacturing guidelines.

While safer alternatives to benzene can often be found (e.g. cyclohexane and heptane), the most effective way to ensure benzene exposure decreases lies in a large step back from our reliance on oil and a prioritisation of renewable energy in our economies. Oil may be cheaper, but it certainly has no regard for our people and planet. Pressured by new-found social attitudes towards fossil fuels, most big oil companies have begun publishing plans detailing their shift from oil to solar, wind and hydropower. The company Total S.A. has already consecrated 20 percent of earnings over the next two decades to low carbon business.

On a personal level, much can be done by those in highly consumer-based societies. Favouring bikes or hydrogen cars over gas-emitting vehicles and installing solar panels at home are only two examples. Increasing awareness and creating anti-benzene consumer demands that target relevant corporations are key to creating change.

Our attitude towards the issue is what’s most important. An economy more conscious of environmental and socioeconomic equality is the solution. Deaths caused by petrochemical intoxication are a result of our own insatiable demand for crude oil. Though direct consequences may be somewhat invisible in our busy lives, we must take a moment to realise what we are really doing every time we buy a new pair of shoes or start our cars.