Your head is splitting. You can feel the throbbing and aching right down to your toes. You reach for that bottle of aspirin, swallow a couple of pills and 20 minutes later, you feel sweet relief.
Beyond its medicinal value in stopping our headaches, most of us don’t stop to think too much about aspirin, nor its composition. If we did, we’d find out that its main ingredient is acetylsalicylic acid, which is made via a chemical reaction involving petrochemicals cumene, phenol and benzene.
First synthesized in 1897 by German chemist Felix Hoffman, aspirin has proven itself a safe and reliable medicine. World-wide, people swallow an estimated 58 billion of tablets a year—to treat pain, fever and inflammation; and to prevent heart conditions or stroke.
Aspirin is only one of the numerous medications that has its base in petrochemicals. Many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs and medicinal products are made with the help of petrochemicals—these include antihistamines, antibacterials, suppositories, cough syrups, lubricants, creams, ointments, salves, analgesics and gels.
What’s the connection? Hydrocarbons are organic molecules.
Most pharmaceutical drugs are made via chemical reactions that involve the use of organic molecules. Petroleum is a plentiful source of organic molecules that feed into the drug synthesis process. Some sources cite as much as 99% of pharmaceutical feedstocks and reagents as coming from petrochemical sources.
Even drugs that come from natural sources like plants are still often purified using petrochemicals, resulting in a more efficient and less costly manufacturing process. Others still, like antibiotics derived from natural fungi and microbes—namely, penicillin—often use phenol and cumene as preparatory agents.
The fact is, without petrochemicals it would in many cases be extremely difficult to make and mass produce pharmaceutical drugs, particularly at the scale needed to meet global demand.
Finally, pill capsules and coatings are also most frequently polymer based. In fact, time-release drugs depend on a tartaric acid-based polymer that slowly dissolves, administering just the right dose of medication.
Vaseline, petroleum jelly, or petrolatum, was one of the first petroleum-based “medicines”. Even though today, many of its medicinal properties as a topical ointment have been discounted, it is still used to help prevent skin chapping, treat rashes and alleviate nosebleeds. It is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an approved over-the-counter skin protectant.
Many topical medicines, such as those to treat psoriasis, also have their basis in petrochemistry. For instance, salicylic acid gets rid of scales that show up on affected skin. It comes in lotions, creams, ointments and other treatments. In an early (1966) biosynthetic process, researchers at Kerr-McGee Oil Industries prepared salicylic acid via the microbial degradation of naphthalene. It is now commercially biosynthesized from phenylalanine.
Numerous other creams and salves used to treat everything from fungus to eczema also find their basis in petrochemistry.
Other medicines, such as laxatives, have their basis in mineral oils, another petrochemical. Mineral oils are a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons produced from the distillation of petroleum and then refined to be suitable for commercial use. When used as a laxative, mineral oil works to alleviate constipation by retaining water in stool and the intestines.