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Life Cycle Risks for Human Health: A Comparison of Petroleum Versus Bio-Based Production of Five Bulk Organic Chemicals

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This article describes the development and application of a generic approach to the comparative assessment of risks related to the production of organic chemicals by petrochemical processes versus white biotechnology. White biotechnology, also referred to as industrial biotechnology, typically uses bio-based feedstocks instead of the fossil raw materials used in the petrochemical sector. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether the production of chemicals by means of white biotechnology has lower conventional risks than their production by petrochemical processes. Conventional risks are the risks of well-established processes, and not those related to genetically modified microorganisms and plants. Our approach combines classical risk assessment methods (largely based on toxicology), as developed by the life cycle assessment (LCA) community, with statistics on technological disasters, accidents, and work-related illnesses. Moreover, it covers the total process chain for both petrochemical and bio-based products from cradle to grave. The approach was applied to five products: the plastics polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), and ethanol. Our results show that the conventional risks related to the white biotechnology products studied are lower than those of the petrochemical products. However, considering the uncertainties with respect to the ranges of input data, the (incomplete) coverage of emissions by the environmental priority strategies (EPS) 2000 method, and the uncertainties of the assumptions made in this study (i.e., large to very large), the differences in results between bio-based and petrochemical products fall into the uncertainty range. Because of this, future research is necessary to decrease the uncertainties before we can conclude that the conventional risks of biotechnologically produced chemicals are lower than those of fossil-fuel-derived chemicals.
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Keywords: Bio-based chemicals; conventional risks; industrial biotechnology; life cycle risks; white biotechnology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 October 2007

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