If you happen to enjoy watching Chinese state run television (as we all do from time to time), you might have noticed the recent publicity ads about some weird chemical called "paraxylene" (aka "PX"). You may have also seen that the state run news stations are running reports describing how countries like Singapore have chemical manufacturing compounds that extremely safe. You may have even seen the billboards that answer all you're tough questions about PX and the environment (if you can read Mandarin).


So, being a silly, capitalistic American with a bent for free speech, I have to ask, "What's this publicity push all about?"

Well, according to The Guardian it might have to do with the violent protests that stopped the construction of a chemical plant in Maoming March 30. Or maybe it has something to do with the protests that took place in Kunming last May that halted the construction of another petro-chemical production plant. It might also have something to do with China's terrible record with environmental protection.

Or maybe PX is just a red herring used to protest something else.

"What?!" you say. "This is clearly a case of the state trying to mislead the people!" Well, before we all start screaming "Freedom of the press!" we should probably take a closer look at what PX is and what it does.

What is PX?

First off, PX is one of the three types of xylenes: O, M, and P. The three xylenes are clear, liquid, and smell a little sweet when they tango with your nose hairs. Your run-of-the-mill xylene is made up of a combination of all three xylenes. PX is refined out of regular xylene by using a crystallization process and the centrifuging the good stuff out. PX is then used to make three other chemicals (TPA, PTA and DMT). Those three chemicals are used to make polyester. That's right. You can thank PX for your dad's sweet checkered golf pants (may they rest in tatters).

Not only is polyester used to make your pants look and feel good, but it is really hard to break. People use it for lots of different stuff like carbonated and non-carbonated beverage containers, containers for household chemicals, toiletries, cosmetics, curtains, upholstery, microwave oven packaging material, films for x-rays, magnetic tapes, photographic film, electrical insulation, packaging for boil-in bags, processed meats, shrink films and blister packs.

So, yeah, PX gets around.

"But so did DDT," you say? "Just because it's used in everything doesn't make it healthy."

Right you are! So let's take a peak at what the EPA says about ol' PX.

Health Risks

In terms of acute affects, the EPA says PX is "associated with dyspnea and irritation of the nose and throat; gastrointestinal effects such as nausea, vomiting, and gastric discomfort; mild transient eye irritation; and neurological effects such as impaired short-term memory, impaired reaction time, performance decrements in numerical ability, and alterations in equilibrium and body balance." They also say it can cause liver, cardiovascular, nervous system, and kidney problems. The long term affects are essentially the same as the short term. The reproductive affects are inconclusive. Then comes the bomb.

The cancer risk.

Surprise! There is none. Well, let's be honest. They've pumped rats full of the stuff and they haven't seen any cancerous affects so they labeled it as "Group D" which means "it is not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity."

At this point in my research I was thinking, "But still, the short term affects are pretty intense so the EPA doesn't allow the US to manufacture PX, right?" Wrong.

Chevron-Philipps has a plant down in Pascagoula, Mississippi that makes PX, and they are pretty open about it. If you want, you can read their material data safety sheet for PX and see how they tell their people to stay safe while working with PX. It'll even tell how you they transport it whether it's going to Bolivia or Bogota.

What's really going on?

At this point I'm thinking, "If the people of China don't want this stuff near them, then why in the world are the people in the US not making a stink?" Well, research shows that, though PX can have harmful side affects, if the chemical is worked with properly, the health risks aren't dangerous to human life. That's why the production of the chemical is not regulated by SARA of the Clean Air Act.

Now, don't hear me say, "PX is as perfectly safe as a puppy." It's not. It's like working with power tools. If you know the dangers of what you're working with and take it seriously, you can use the product safely.

This takes us back to China. PX is definitely not the most harmful thing released into the country. Coal and gas use that creates those dense fogs in Beijing and Shanghai are likely to take 5.5 years off people's lives. If the people are upset enough about a PX factory coming to town to get folks out into the street, I would think that half the country would be on a hunger strike to protest the air that is nearly impossible to breathe.

Another thing, it seems a little ironic that one of the leading protestors is smoking a cig while he's protesting the adverse health affects of PX. Maybe it's just me, but it seems to be sending a mixed message.

From what I've gathered, it seems like these protests are less about the environment and more about public policy. In 2012 public protests in China had increased 30% every year. However, the protests weren't so much about the actual environment as they were about the fact that there was no real avenue to truly make dissenting voices heard. In this particular case, the protests are using PX as the scapegoat to point out how the government "makes nothing public or transparent."

Ultimately, if you're worried about the adverse health affects of PX, you can relax a little. It can be unhealthy, but it's really not too bad if you treat it properly. The protests in Maoming are really not about PX. They are just the tip of the iceberg of something much, much bigger.