Petrochemicals in Medicine

The use of petrochemicals in medicine includes the manufacture of pills, capsules, and disposable syringes.
The use of petrochemicals in medicine includes the manufacture of pills, capsules, and disposable syringes.

It’s hard to notice what’s going on around you when you’re injured or sick. You may be surprised at the key role played by petrochemicals in medicine. Some uses are obvious, like plastic tubes and containers. Most uses of petroleum are much harder to see. Petroleum products save doctors and patients time and money. They are essential in the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. Actually, many medical advances wouldn’t be possible without polymers and other petrochemicals.

Getting Help

It can take a long time to walk for help if you’re injured or sick. In an emergency, time can make the difference between life and death. Petroleum and natural gas products make it possible to get care quickly. A typical vehicle runs on gasoline or diesel, yet even if you drive an electric car to the hospital, there’s a good chance the energy used to charge the battery came from the petroleum industry. In 2016, over a third of electricity was generated by natural gas and over half a percent by petroleum. Ambulances run on gasoline and diesel. If you need to be air-lifted, emergency planes and helicopters use aviation fuel, a special petroleum-based fuel.

Preventing Infections

You go to a hospital to get better, not to get sick! Petrochemicals greatly reduce the risk of nosocomial infections, which are infections caught from pathogens from other patients, hospital food, and insufficiently sterile conditions. Doctors and nurses wash their hands (a lot) using petroleum-based detergents. Even hand sanitizer contains petrochemicals, in the form of carbomer polymers and glycerin. Disposable gloves are made of latex, vinyl, and nitrile – all petrochemicals. Disposable syringes, bags that hold blood and saline, and tubing are all made of plastic. Disposable masks, intended to reduce infection of both patients and medical personally, often consist of synthetic polymers. Basically, plastics and polymers make aseptic techniques easier and much more affordable than they would be using glass and cotton. Glass and cotton still have their place, although washing them still requires detergents.

Getting a Diagnosis

Plastics and other polymers are used to make models and even 3D printed prosthetics and organs. (jesse orrico)
Plastics and other polymers are used to make models and even 3D printed prosthetics and organs. (jesse orrico)

Quick, reliable diagnostic tests rely on petroleum. Pre-packaged assays, urine specimen contains, and Vacutainer tubes for blood tests are often made of plastic to minimize breakage and cost. Polymers act as the substrate for many simple tests, such as urine test strips and pregnancy tests. Chemicals embedded in plastic react with compounds, typically producing a color change. In the past, X-rays and other images were printed on plastic films. Most modern diagnostic imaging relies on computers, which are made in part using petrochemicals. If you get an MRI, you should know the machine is cooled using liquid helium, a by-product of natural gas production.

Drugs Rely on Petrochemistry

In 1897, German chemistry Felix Hoffman synthesized aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), one of the most widely used, safest, and effective drugs in the modern world. The synthesis of aspirin opened a new world of drug chemistry. Petrochemicals cumene, phenol, benzene, and other aromatics are used to make not only aspirin, but also penicillin and cancer-fighting drugs. Ultimately, most drugs are organic molecules made using petrochemical polymer. Those that are not are often purified using petrochemical resins. Polymers are used to make pill capsules and coatings. Time-release drugs rely on a tartaric acid-based polymer that slowly dissolves, administering just the right dose of medication. Drug packaging, made using plastics, keeps medication sterile, child-resistant, and safe from accidental breakage.

Innovative Treatments

Many medical applications of petroleum are ones you probably take for granted. Others offer exciting promise for the future. Petrochemicals are changing the way we treat injuries.

  • Sterile plastic bandages are of the most familiar medical treatments made using petroleum. Waterproof bandages and non-stick dressings also owe their effectiveness to petrochemicals.
  • Traditionally, a cast to set a broken bone was made using cotton gauze and plaster of Paris. Today, modern casts may be made using fiberglass. Fiberglass, a composite made of glass and plastic, is waterproof, resists shattering, and weighs less than plaster.
  • In the past, if you had to get stitches, the sutures were made of silk or cat gut. Modern sutures are often made from a variety of synthetic fibers. Non-absorbable stitches may be made of polyester or nylon. Dissolving sutures may be made of polyglycolic acid or polylactic acid. Sometimes the fiber is coated with triclosan (synthesized from petrochemicals) to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Newborn infants with respiratory distress may be given surfactant therapy to help them breathe. Some surfactants come from animal sources, but synthetic surfactants may be made from oleochemicals and petroleum.
  • A patient with coronary artery disease may have an angioplasty to restore blood flow through a blocked artery. Basically, this involves inserting and inflating a balloon at just the right point in the blood vessel. High-pressure balloons in the medical industry are made using silicone or latex.
  • In the past, if you were hard of hearing, the best you could hope for was to use an ear trumpet to collect sounds. Modern hearing aids are electroacoustic devices that perform (and look) much better. Hearing aids rely on custom fitting to the wearer’s ear, which is achieved by molding them out of plastic.
  • 3D printing helps medical professional model organs, tumors, and blood vessels. It is also used to make prosthetic limbs for amputees. While scientists have been able to make prosthetics from other materials, using polymers cuts the expense and allows for precise customization of an appendage.
  • Looking toward the future, artificial polymer skin may make it possible for prosthetics to sense pressure, restoring the sense of touch.

When you’re hurt or sick, petrochemicals make a difference every step of the way, from getting to the hospital all the way to recovery. The next time you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, take a moment to look around and notice all the items made using petroleum.


  • Czuba, Len (28 September 2015) “An Introduction To Emerging Polymers for Medical Devices”. Med Device Online. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  • Jones, Alan (2015). Chemistry: An Introduction for Medical and Health Sciences. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Sami Matar and Lewis F. Hatch (2001). Chemistry of Petrochemical Processes. Gulf Professional Publishing.
  • Steenhuysen, Julie (12 September 2010). “Artificial “skin” materials can sense pressure“. Reuters. Yahoo News. Archived from the original on 16 September 2010. Retrieved 23 January 2018.