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.
Such findings are helping drive the push for toxic chemical reform, which could affect the way Cronin stocks her day care cupboards, the survival of petrochemical companies and even the make-up of the U.S. energy market -- controlled by three of the most powerful industries in the world.
Judy Robinson, director of the environmental health non-profit Coming Clean, puts it simply: "To grapple with chemicals is to grapple with oil, gas and coal."
It's no coincidence, Robinson said, that the number three publicly-traded chemical company also happens to be the number two oil company: ExxonMobil.
Examples of the intertwined industries abound.
Lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who voted for the so-called Halliburton loophole received more than six times as much money from oil and gas companies as people who voted against it, according to a report by Common Cause, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen’s lobbying group. The loophole essentially exempts the natural gas industry from obeying a federal law that protects drinking water from toxic chemicals. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chairs the committee, accepted $80,000 for his campaign between January 2011 and September 2012 from the chemical industry, a separate Common Cause report found.
In Pennsylvania, the front-line of the natural gas rush, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is widely criticized among environmental advocates for the $1.8 million in campaign contributions he received between January 2000 and April 2012 from the oil and gas industry. He signed a "Cracker Credit" in June of last year that will go into effect in 2017, ultimately providing Shell Oil Company with up to $1.65 billion in tax credits over the next 25 years should it move forward with its proposed petrochemical plant in the state.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the executive committee of the American Chemistry Council voted unanimously in February that "public policies should promote the availability of competitively priced natural gas and feedstock to support the continued growth of the chemical industry in the United States." A 2007 report from the investment research firm Innovest singled out the biggest determinant of profitability for the chemical industry: energy resources.
Stephane Horel, a French documentary filmmaker, said things aren't much different overseas.
Chemical and pharmaceutical companies including Dow, BASF and DuPont, she noted, are currently lobbying against tighter regulation of hormone-disrupting chemicals in the European Union, with the help of a suite of oil and gas companies including BP, Eni, ExxonMobil and Honeywell.
"We have a very powerful chemical industry," she said. "But what we need to do is move to another type of chemistry altogether."
The impetus for reform goes beyond chemical toxicity. Fossil fuel supplies across the globe are dwindling and methods used to acquire them are becoming more extreme: mountaintop coal removal, deepwater drilling, oil sands excavation and, of course, fracking for natural gas.
Eventually, Robinson said, we are going to hit the bottom of the barrel and will need a "sea change." Unless we keep 80 percent of global fossil fuel reserves in the ground, climate scientists warn, we will face an unsafe and unstable climate.
During a highly publicized speech at Georgetown University last week, President Barack Obama announced a plan to reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels and transition to clean energy, "for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans."
"This does not mean we're going to suddenly stop producing fossil fuels. Our economy wouldn't run very well if it did," he said, later suggesting that natural gas should act as a fuel to bridge the transition.
"We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least," Obama said, "it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions."
'KICK OUT FOSSIL FUELS'
A silk scarf plucked from a pile on the playroom floor morphed into a cape the moment Gavin, Cronin's 4-year-old, held it to the back of his Superman T-shirt and paraded around the day care. A few feet away, kids sat at a mirrored table pounding, molding and carving playdough colored brown with instant coffee and cocoa.
"These kinds of open-ended materials encourage innovation," said Cronin, referring to the playdough and scarves, and suggesting that innovation is the "one thing that's going to solve our problems."
Applying Cronin's tactics to problems brought on by fossil fuels means first coming up with alternative energy sources, novel ingredients to continue making the products people need, and ways to live comfortably without the stuff that, as critics argue, society only thinks it needs.
As the green energy industry develops methods for tapping renewable energy like wind and solar -- a difficult task, environmentalists say, given diverted investments into further fossil fuel development -- chemists are also trying to make products safer.
"If you were working from bio-based material that had breakdown qualities that made it inert and natural, then you'd have a better building block," said Robinson of Coming Clean, noting that while there are always exceptions, materials that start off as fossil fuels tend to be the least safe.
But chemists, like green energy advocates, face a financial foe: Toxic chemicals currently have a market advantage over safer ones.
Steingraber, the ecologist and author, noted that "cheap sources of carbon" are a major obstacle to changing the way products are made. Warner, the green chemist, agreed. As carbon-based fossil fuel supplies increase, he said, the plummeting price tags make it very difficult for other source materials to compete.
"No one will invest if they can't see a secure return," Warner added. "Right now, they see gas prices going down. Everyone is focused on next quarter's earnings, not the long term."
Still, for people fearing unsafe products, there may be at least a couple of upsides to the shrinking natural gas prices and expanding fleet of petrochemical plants in the U.S., according to industry officials.
More U.S.-manufactured goods could mean fewer items on the market that pose toxicity concerns beyond their fossil fuel ingredients. Toys, shoes and other products imported from China, for example, are frequently flagged as tainted with toxic chemicals such as lead.
"There's a strong argument to make for having these products developed in countries where there are very strong standards for environmental safety and health -- such as in the U.S., Canada and Europe," said Kevin Kolevar, vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Dow Chemical Company.
Kolevar added that the glut of gas and its byproducts could even lower manufacturing costs for renewable energy technologies, such as solar shingles or materials for large wind turbines, which, like most other products, generally start out as petrochemicals.
Many environmental advocates argue that we can do without some of the petrochemical-derived products, such as agricultural chemicals. Petrochemical-derived fertilizers, like the stock that exploded at a Texas facility in April, are widely used on American monocultures. But Robinson noted that rotating crops and other natural strategies, albeit often more time-intensive ones, can also enrich the soil and fend off pests with healthier results for the land and the consumer.
Some chemical companies are investing in alternatives, both inside and outside the fossil fuel family. Dow spends around $1.75 billion a year on research and development "across the range to identify ways to make products safer, more effective, more efficient with more sustainable materials," Kolevar said.
The U.S.-made dump truck that Cronin picked out for her class, for example, was constructed of recycled plastic and advertised as free of potentially harmful phthalates and BPA. Cronin not only chooses specific toys for her kids, she continues environmental lessons throughout the day -- from composting to singing a song she learned at protests against the pipeline currently being built into Manhattan.
When her kids at the day care had at least temporarily tired of attacking the "Fracked Gas Pipeline Monster," she gathered everyone together for music time.
"Wow, it's getting hot in here -- too much carbon in the atmosphere," she said on a particularly warm May day, using a well-practiced sing-song tone.
Cronin then began banging red and orange plastic tubes together as she broke out into what she said had become a favorite tune of the class.
"Kick out fossil fuels, kick out fossil fuels. Kick out fossil fuels, kick out fossil fuels!"
The children surrounded her, some swaying to the simple beat, others just listening intently. Cronin repeated the protest-inspired refrain a few times before belting out the last line: "Stop the pipeline!"
"We're not going down without a fight," she said.