The scientific literature indicates that there are at least two dozen adverse health effects linked to exposure to mineral oil, a crude oil derivative. New research indicates these fat-soluble hydrocarbons are accumulating to disturbing levels in our bodies, and affecting newborns by contaminating breast milk.
How did they get there? Mineral oil is legally allowed to be added to our foods, drugs and cosmetics, where they accumulate in our bodies over time, with the highest concentrations found in our fat deposits. One autopsy study performed in 1985, revealed that 48% of the livers and 46% of the spleens of the 465 autopsies analyzed showed signs of mineral-oil induced lipogranuloma (a nodule of necrotic, fatty tissue associated with granulomatous inflammation or a foreign-body reaction around a deposit of an oily substance), indicating just how widespread pathological tissue changes associated with exposure really are.
In the United States, the FDA has approved mineral for use in cosmetic products, as well as a food additive up to 10 mg/kg a day. For a 150 lb adult (68.03 kilograms) this is the equivalent of 680 milligrams a day, or 248 grams (over half a pound!) a year.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, mineral oil may be used for the following uses in ingestible products:
Considering the fact that our food supply is now saturated through with "food-grade" petroleum, it is no wonder that a study published in the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2008, found that "mineral paraffins might be the largest contaminant of our body, widely amounting to 1g per person and reaching 10 g in extreme cases."
In the study they took tissue samples from women undergoing Ceasarean section and found "concentrations varied between 15 and 360 mg/kg fat, with an average of 60.7 mg/kg and a median of 52.5 mg/kg." More disturbingly, milk samples taken from these same women 4 days after delivery showed "the same mixture of mineral paraffins as the tissue fat at concentrations between 10 and 355 mg/kg (average, 44.6 mg/kg; median, 30 mg/kg)."
Infants, of course, are at much higher risk for adverse effects associated with mineral oil exposures due to their relatively far higher body burden (lower body weight vs. chemical exposure) and less developed blood-brain-barrier and detoxification systems in comparison with adults. Also, children have been found to accumulate higher levels than adults, either due to their higher consumption of de-dusted grains and glazing agents on confectionery products, or their inability to detoxify it as efficiently.
It should be noted that the health risks associated with mineral oil are not strictly theoretical. The World Health Organization classifies mineral oils (in untreated or lightly treated industrial-grade form) as Group 1 carcinogens to humans.1 The OSHA fact sheet on mineral oil also references research from 1991 indicating that it is carcinogenic to humans.2
Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2009 found that commonly used moisturizing creams containing mineral oil are tumorigenic when applied topically to UVB-pretreated high-risk mice. The brands studied were Dermabase, Dermovan, Eucerin, or Vanicream, which millions of Americans apply daily to their skin.
For additional information on natural substances which have been shown to ameliorate adverse health effects associated with petroleum and/or petroleum constituents, view our page on the topic.
1 International Agency for Research on Cancer (17 June 2011). "Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Volumes 1 - 102" (PDF). Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer. pp. 3, 19. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
2 Hathaway GJ, Proctor NH, Hughes JP, and Fischman ML . Proctor and Hughes' chemical hazards of the workplace. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.