NEW YORK -- Armed with colorful plastic tubes brandished like swords, youngsters at Manhattan's Tinker Tree day care center took swipes at a towering, cylindrical puppet named the "Fracked Gas Pipeline Monster." The cardboard beast, emblazoned with evil red eyes, teetered and tottered with each enthusiastic blow until a final strike sent it toppling to the floor.
"Down with the pipeline!" cheered Natalie Cronin, who runs the Upper East Side facility.
Two-year-old Max Giampaolo stood grinning beside the slain monster, which now stared up from the floor at a "Speak for the Trees" poster hanging on the wall. The boy then dropped his weapon and crawled inside the pipeline.
As both a mother and an educator, Cronin, 40, says she has spent years attempting to insulate the children in her charge from a dizzying array of commonly used chemicals experts believe to be harmful -- mostly through careful shopping for organic foods and natural cleaners, and even making her own playdough. But her efforts proved Sisyphean. She eventually realized that attempts to fully avoid the chemicals -- which public health advocates say include potentially brain-damaging pesticides and hormone-scrambling plasticizers -- are doomed in the modern world. Fossil fuels, Cronin says, are to blame, and she uses the pipeline puppet to teach her class about the dangers they pose.
"At the end of the day, it all comes down to fossil fuels," Cronin said. "It can all be traced back to an industry that refuses to die."
Fossil fuels are, after all, far more than just fuel. As oil, gas and coal are refined into well-known energy products that propel automobiles and heat homes, a host of lesser-known byproducts are stripped away and shipped off to petrochemical plants. Leftovers from natural gas refining -- ethylene, propylene, butylene, xylene and toluene -- "all go into virtually every conceivable consumer product that you can imagine," said Dan Borne of the Louisiana Chemical Association during a January webinar presented by Pennsylvania State University.
"The chemical industry uses natural gas like a bakery shop uses flour," he said.
It's much the same story for other fossil fuels. While the vinyl of a U.S.-made kid's raincoat probably started as natural gas, for example, one manufactured in China likely began as coal.
Not everyone believes that's a bad thing. Plastics, preservatives and pesticides derived from fossil fuels, supporters argue, have revolutionized modern life, providing goods that last longer, are easier to maintain, and are far cheaper to manufacture. The current boom in the U.S. production of natural gas, which industry experts note burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, has reinvigorated a once-flagging petrochemical sector and opened up scores of new jobs. The industry has, in turn, spent lavishly to both support legislation that has helped to expand and nurture fossil fuel development, and prevent regulation that would more closely monitor the potentially negative consequences of industrial chemical use on public health and the environment.
While some companies are pursuing safer materials, the general consensus in the industry is that most toxicity concerns lack sufficient scientific proof and therefore don't call for a change to the status quo.
Yet critics like Cronin say there is nothing inevitable or necessary about the saturation of modern life with oil and gas and their legion of polysyllabic by-products. "This is just how things have been done. Our entire culture is dependent on it," she says. "And it's not going away anytime soon -- especially not without a lot of people pressuring for change."
Toward that end, Cronin has gone beyond her well-researched shopping lists, rallying against projects that support what she now sees as sources of the problem. She's held protest signs in Washington, D.C., opposing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project -- which would ferry tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast -- and held meetings in Manhattan with parents who share her concerns about pollution from extracting and transporting natural gas. Not only is there a heated debate over whether New York state should green-light so-called fracking -- or breaking apart shale rock to extract natural gas -- many are also concerned about a new high-pressure pipeline already under construction to deliver natural gas harvested in Pennsylvania to New York City. The pipeline enters Manhattan just a few hundred feet from a children's playground.
That's what inspired the "Fracked Gas Pipeline Monster" in Cronin's day care classroom -- now one of her kids' favorite toys. "This is a monster that is hiding in a lot of places," Cronin said. "It's never too early to let them know."
'LIKE A BAKERY SHOP USES FLOUR'
Borne's baking analogy is an apt one. Just as flour is the key ingredient in bagels, muffins and The Tinker Tree day care playdough, petrochemicals like butylene and xylene provide the building blocks, or feedstocks, for everything from plastics and paints to carpets and crop fertilizers.
Overall, the industrial sector used 27 percent of natural gas in the U.S. in 2010.
"The vast majority of Americans don't very well understand how much their lives are impacted by this energy source through things they actually use," said Penelope Jagessar Chaffer, a concerned mom and director of the upcoming documentary "Toxic Baby." "They don't have a sense of its reach -- into things in our homes, things we wear, things we put on our face."
"Fossil fuels are fueling these products," she added.
Natural gas is just the latest fossil fuel to play a powerful role in modern manufacturing. Remnants from the processing of oil and coal have been filling products for decades, particularly since the end of World War II, when the U.S. found itself with a surplus of petroleum. During the war effort, the fuel was enlisted not only to power planes and tanks, but also to equip those vehicles with canopies and radar systems and give soldiers raincoats and bug nets.
These post-war leftovers combined with a newly-established infrastructure of refineries and petrochemical plants may well have spurred the pervasive fossil fuel-based culture still present today, according to John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and a former chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
"People had stuff and looked into what they could make from it, rather than the other way around," Warner said. "Now, unlimited and expanding gas development -- another petroleum feedstock -- fits into the same scheme, so we don't have to invent or change anything."
Others see this perceived rut as more of an opportunity than a problem.
In fact, according to Borne, the fracking boom couldn't have come soon enough. He noted that a drop in the U.S. natural gas supply led the country's petrochemical industry to "hit bottom" in 2009, before the rise of hydraulic fracturing allowed companies to tap into previously inaccessible deposits.
Today, industry officials tout great job prospects. A report released in May by the American Chemistry Council, a leading chemical industry trade group, estimated up to an additional 46,000 permanent jobs in the chemical industry if all of the proposed chemical and plastics projects are built.
One such project, a "cracker" plant to break down natural gas into lucrative petrochemical building blocks, has been proposed in western Pennsylvania by Shell Oil Company. But the region, which is at the forefront of fracking controversies, is already facing environmental problems. Drinking water wells located near fracking sites in the area are at high risk of contamination, according to a study published last week. Other recent research suggests that methane, a potent greenhouse gas, escapes readily during natural gas extraction.
Cracker plants themselves are known to emit large amounts of toxic air pollution, including nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds.
Cronin grew up in western Pennsylvania. She recalled knowing nothing about fracking or cracking during her youth, despite the persistent presence of pollution from another fossil fuel. She described a "bright orange" creek running through her yard that her dad, who worked in the energy industry, cautioned her never to touch.
"It was contaminated with sulfur from coal mining," she said.
Cronin knows all about fracking now. After protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in February, she returned from D.C. to participate in a smaller stand against the more modest pipeline project that would tunnel natural gas under the Hudson River into Manhattan. While New York City touts the potential to replace dirty heating oil with the cleaner-burning gas, Cronin and other activists worry that the radioactive radon potentially released from natural gas will be delivered to their urban apartments.
Cronin also fears an explosion like the 2010 natural gas pipeline rupture in San Bruno, Calif., which took eight lives. The public doesn't always realize, she added, that many explosions of that nature are tied to energy extraction. In April, 15 people were killed in an explosion at a Texas facility that stored fertilizer produced from fossil fuels, and explosions in June at two separate Louisiana petrochemical plants killed three. Both facilities were parts of a larger fleet that is expanding natural gas development.
"When something goes wrong and a plant blows up, it becomes easier to see where our stuff comes from," said Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and author of the environmental health book Raising Elijah. She described an explosion in 2004 at a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant an hour away from her rural Illinois hometown, and how her subsequent investigation led her to realize that the PVC tiles of her kitchen floor came from natural gas.
Today, Steingraber lives in upstate New York, a region that sits atop a motherload of natural gas trapped in deep layers of shale. She's become a vocal opponent of using fracking to extract it.
As for Cronin, she's "still fighting fracking here in New York," pointing to multiple delays by the state government on a decision. "We breathe a little sigh of relief every time we can push it back further."
CONNECTING THE DOTS
While fracking fights rage from Colorado to North Carolina, and opposition escalates with protests at construction sites along the proposed Keystone XL, another heated discussion is taking place about an overhaul of the nation's toxic chemical regulation.
A proposed federal plan, first introduced by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in 2005, would reverse the burden of proof on toxic chemicals -- from the current assumption that a chemical is safe until proven toxic, usually after it's already spent years on the market, to a requirement for the industry to prove a chemical is safe prior to placing it on store shelves. Less than two weeks before his death in June, Lautenberg co-sponsored a bipartisan and arguably weaker version of his legislation that is now working its way through Congress.
Due in large part to the current lack of thorough toxicity testing for chemicals in most consumer products, the jury is still out on potential dangers of using the products. A growing number of scientific studies, however, are hinting at increased risks of reproductive problems, diabetes and other health effects even from exposures to small amounts of some chemicals. At particular risk are developing children.
In February, experts from the United Nations and the World Health Organization declared that phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA) and other hormone-mimicking chemicals prevalent in petrochemical-derived products, such as plastic water bottles and children’s toys, were a "global threat." The experts noted growing evidence linking the chemicals with health problems like obesity and certain cancers, just as rates of those health problems have risen.