Hesperian Health Guides

Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 22: Oil, Illness, and Human Rights

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 22: Oil, Illness, and Human Rights


A man, woman, and child stand near an oil pipeline.


Petroleum, or oil, is part of many products used every day, such as gasoline, propane, kerosene, heating oil, and asphalt, as well as many plastics, paints, pesticides, solvents, and cosmetics. Even some clothes and medicines are made from oil. But oil is toxic and has harmful effects on our health and the environment, starting with the methods used to find it, transport it, and refine it, as well as the ways in which it is then used.

People in oil-rich areas hope that oil will bring wealth. But in most cases, the wealth goes to the oil companies while the people in the communities are left with poverty, pollution, sickness, and the violence that seems to spill over wherever oil is found. Because the world economy depends on oil, the oil industry has the power to influence governments and international policies. This often leaves poor people in oil-rich communities struggling to protect themselves and their land, and people in wealthy or developing communities struggling with air pollution.

Oil, coal, and natural gas are fossil fuels. They are made from the remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago, and there is only a limited amount of them. In the past 100 years, oil has become the main energy source for most of the world. Now, much of the world’s oil resources have been used up. Burning so much oil and other fossil fuels has led to global warming, one of the biggest environmental problems facing the world today. More and more, people around the world are calling for an end to the oil economy and for the development of cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy.


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