5 surprising ways the petrochemical industry helps healthcare

5 surprising ways the petrochemical industry helps healthcare

Petrochemical engineering has a pretty bad reputation in the UK. Seen as the scourge of global warming, there are not many health or eco-conscious people who would rush to defend petrochemicals. After all, the word itself — made up of petrol and chemicals — finds two words demonised to the nth degree. But the petrochemical industry has a surprisingly positive impact on the world.

For starters, most of the world around us is made up of petrochemicals. It isn’t just the petrol that power ambulances — enabling them to transport critically ill patients to hospital. Petrochemicals are everywhere. According to Petrochemicals Europe, 95% of all manufactured goods use petrochemical engineering in some form. From your iPhone, to recycling bins, to wind turbines, petrochemicals find themselves in some surprising products.

But what about healthcare? You may be surprised to hear that they have a huge impact in this industry too. From petri dishes to antibiotics your chances of living a long healthy life may be much worse without the petrochemical industry.
Here are the five surprising ways the petrochemical industry is used in healthcare…


Nearly all of us at some point in our lives have used penicillin. Discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, Penicillin has become one of the most prescribed drugs in the world. From pneumonia to meningitis, gonorrhoea to syphilis, penicillin can be used to treat almost all common bacterial infections. But without petrochemicals, the penicillin prescribed by your doctor today wouldn’t be as effective.

Both phenol and cumene, two petrochemicals, are used in the production of modern penicillin. They are used as a preparatory substance to create semisynthetic penicillins. Before this process was first introduced, penicillin was far less stable and bioavailable. Thanks to petrochemicals, they can now be produced in scale to meet the needs of the world’s previously fatal bacterial infections.

Artificial limbs

Throughout history, artificial limbs — also called prosthetics — have helped people who have lost limbs. Even as far back as ancient Egypt, people were using artificial limbs. Though it was only through the use of petrochemicals that artificial limbs became widely available to the public.

Today, nearly all prosthetics use plastic derived from petrochemicals. The most common plastics used today are polyethylene, polypropylene and polyurethane. Through vacuum forming and injection moulding, prosthetists can form accurate replicas of bodily limbs. Without petrochemicals, people who have lost limbs may still be using wooden sticks to get around.

AIDS and cancer drugs

Two of the most serious and recognisable medical conditions are AIDS and cancer. So much so that we all are likely to have been affected by them in some form — particularly with cancer. But
without petrochemicals, some of the drugs used to treat cancer may not be as effective. It is also possible that they would be too expensive to produce and buy.

Petrochemical resins are used in the process of purifying drugs that treat AIDS and cancer. Not only does their use make drugs cheaper to the NHS and other healthcare systems, but they simplify the manufacturing process — making it easier to produce lifesaving drugs and treatments en masse.

Syringes and IV drips

All plastics in existence are made from petrochemicals. But disposable syringes and IV drips  might just be the most important in healthcare. Without these, there would be a potential increase in contamination and disease. Charles Rothauser first invented the world’s first plastic-based disposable syringe in 1949. Without that breakthrough, who knows how many people would have contracted diseases through cross-contamination.

It’s not just syringes and IV drips that owe something to petrochemical engineering in surgeries across the UK. Orthopaedic devices, petri dishes, artificial corneas and hearing aids are almost always made from plastics derived from petrochemicals.

Insect repellants

Though insect repellants might not seem as vital to society as cancer treatments and penicillin, they improve millions of people’s lives across the globe. In fact, they are more vital than you may think — especially in developing countries. Insect repellants help prevent and cure many insect- borne diseases. From malaria, to lyme disease to river blindness, petrochemical-derived insect repellants save lives.

Even in the UK, insect repellants have an impact. That mosquito spray you take on holiday with you — that’s derived from petrochemicals. Though you might have thought petrochemicals just powered your car, they power almost everything in society.

To sum up…

Petrochemical engineering might have a bad name. But it isn’t the baddy it’s often made out to be. There is no doubt that in the future cars will become electric. Nor that power stations will close down to be replaced by wind farms and solar panels. But one thing is for certain — petrochemicals will play a part in the drive towards a more sustainable, healthier future.

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs.

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