The Health Behind Plastics Cracker Plants

The plastics cracker complex that Royal Dutch Shell is now building in Beaver County has been touted as a jobs creator and an overall benefit to the economy of southwestern Pennsylvania. But this cracker plant, which is the size of almost 300 football fields, has the potential to harm the health of the entire region for years to come. Given that at least three more complexes are being proposed for the tri-state area, the risks to public health should not be taken lightly.

Let’s take a closer look at cracker plants and how they can impact your health, as well as general environmental and economic concerns a petrochemical build-out will have.

What a Plastics Cracker Plant Does

A plastics cracker plant is a large industrial complex that heats ethane – a component of natural gas – and “cracks” it into ethylene. Ethylene is used to create plastic nurdles, which are small pellets that form the basic building blocks of most plastic products. These nurdles are shipped to industries all over the world to make items we use in everyday life.

But where does a cracker plant get its ethane? In the case of the Shell cracker plant, the vast majority of the ethane will come from shale gas development right here in southwestern Pennsylvania. Compressed ethane from shale gas wells will be fed through hundreds of miles of pipelines and compressors to the cracker plant. At least 1,000 full-producing fracked wells will be required every year to feed the voracious appetite of each cracker plant.

How Cracker Plants Can Impact Your Health

Just like the network of shale gas wells, compressor stations, and pipelines that feed them, cracker plants release toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. These pollutants include fine particles that you breathe in. They also include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde, which can enter your body through your lungs or skin.

Once operational, the Shell cracker plant has been permitted to release more than 30 tons of hazardous air pollutants, 323 tons of fine particles, and 522 tons of VOCs. These numbers make it a major contributor to pollution in our region. As EHP has modeled it, emissions will affect the health of people living five miles or more from the complex.

The dangerous chemicals cracker plants release are associated with a host of serious health issues, including:
  • Increased rates of asthma
  • Lung and respiratory infections
  • Heart problems
  • Fatigue and nausea
  • Poor birth outcomes
  • Neurological issues such as memory impairment

In large enough doses over time, many of these chemicals can cause cancer. A large-scale petrochemical build-out in southwestern Pennsylvania would start to look a lot like a similar area in Louisiana that’s been dubbed “Cancer Alley.” Do we really want an Appalachian Cancer Alley here in our own backyard?

Focus on the Bigger Picture

Our region’s air quality is already among the worst in the nation, and local air pollutants are recently on the rise again after years of declines. The pollutants emitted from the cracker plant will likely cause air quality across the region to worsen even more. Further, the Shell cracker plant is permitted to release more than 2 million tons of CO2 each year. Because it's a significant greenhouse gas, CO2 emissions contribute to climate change. According to Jim Fabisiak at the University of Pittsburgh, these CO2 emissions are the equivalent of emitting as much pollution as 36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles per year – a 25 percent increase in the number of cars driven in Beaver County. 

According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, a petrochemical build-out in southwestern Pennsylvania will result in shorter lifespans for thousands of residents in the region. With the planet facing a climate crisis, made worse by significant quantities of methane leaking from shale gas facilities, now is not the time to increase our extraction and processing of fossil fuels, especially for making plastics.

A Better Economic Model

                            Credit: Gov. Tom Wolf

Setting aside the health impacts for a moment and focusing on the economics, the Shell cracker plant is estimated to create about 600 ongoing jobs. But Pennsylvania lawmakers gave Shell a sweetheart deal – a $1.65 billion tax cut over 25 years, the biggest tax break in state history. What this means is that the state is essentially paying Shell about $275,000 for each long-term job it’s creating.

In Pennsylvania, jobs involving renewable energies are already outpacing those in the fossil fuel industry. If this tax money had been invested in bringing more renewable energy jobs into the region, the state would be in a much better economic condition going forward. 

What Can You Do?

  • If you live near a cracker plant, you should be aware of the health risks you face and take measures to protect your health and that of your family.
  • If you live in the region generally, you can tell your local and state legislators that you want them to strictly and continuously monitor pollution coming from the plant and make sure limits are not exceeded.
  • If a second cracker plant is proposed nearby, you should consider fighting against it, as health problems can become compounded when additional facilities are added.

For more information, see additional resources on EHP’s website.

The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.


This is just wrong "With the Shell cracker plant permitted to release more than 2 million tons of smog-forming CO2 each year, air quality across the region will worsen even more. " CO2 doesn't form smog. It'll release 500 tons of smog-forming volatile organics. And the CO2? No smog, instead CO2 is the main driver of climate change. Please fix your facts.

Greg, thank you very much for your thorough read of this post. You are indeed right, and we have corrected the information. We are grateful for your contribution to a factual discussion.

We are an ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS group who started protesting up at the gates of the plant every Saturday from early October to December this year

Hi Rebecca, (that's my moms name also) so you ARE protesting in October of 2021 or you DID in October 2019? Just curious bcuz I just moved to quip about a yr ago. Not until recently I noticed stuff that kinda looked like pollen all over everything, it was the beginning of spring/summer so I chalked it up to that until it never went away. It dawned on me that big plants equal pollution. My bf told me it was still pollen. so of course I googled it to prove him wrong but all I did was freak myself the out. I got a kid n family in quip. Also my dad works at the plant my n mom lives by 3 well sights. So with all that being said I want to do something. ANYTHING!! I can't understand how it's all aloud to be done. We don't need more c02 n pollution being admitted plus all the plastic already polluting the earth. All for money, my mind is completely blown. Help me help!

Surely you should better inform people about what are safe levels of emissions and what constitutes hazardous levels. There are many VOCs and other compounds released into the atmosphere from many sources. What is important is the level of emissions. The plant in Fife in Scotland's emissions are retained within safe levels.

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