Just Like Pelicans, People Can't Avoid Oil Either

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Many of these chemicals are disrupting the human hormone system, Collins said.

These are substances that don't appear in nature and "they accumulate in the human body, they persist in the environment," Berkeley's Wilson said. The problem is science isn't quite sure how bad or how safe they are, he said.

But plastics also do good things for the environment, the chemistry council says. Because plastics are lighter than metals, they helped create cars that save fuel. A 2005 European study shows that conversion to plastic materials in Europe saved 26 percent in fuel.

"Compared to the alternatives, it reduces greenhouse gases (which cause global warming) and saves energy; that is rather ironic," Swift said.

Still, chemists who want more sustainable materials are working on alternatives. Another founder of green chemistry, Paul Anastas, an assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said: "We can make those things in other ways."

LSU's Overton is old enough to remember the days before petrochemicals. There were no plastic milk and soda containers. They were glass. Desks were heavy wood. There were no computers, cell phones and not much air conditioning.

"It's a much more comfortable life now, much more convenient," Overton said.

Swift said trying to live without petrochemicals now doesn't make sense, but he added: "it would make a good reality TV show."

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