Becoming Chemically Aware

Recently, the University of California-Los Angeles Center for the Study of Women hosted a two-day landmark symposium titled “Chemical Entanglements.” Two years in the making, the event drew together experts, activists, journalists, and the public in order to address growing concerns about the health impacts of toxic chemicals. Not just your age-old traffic or industry pollutants, but exposures incurred from personal care products, furniture upholstery, cleaning agents, and other consumer products — from the items we are sold and told are safe. These are the silent and unsuspecting assassins, often disproportionately marketed to women.

A chemical exposure scientist myself, and UCLA alumnus, I was especially pleased to have been among those invited to speak. The title of my talk, “TILT: An Emerging Disease Process.” Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance, or TILT, explains the growing number of diverse chemical-related symptoms people experience when exposed to common substances such as perfumes, paints, tobacco smoke, nail polish, car exhaust, etc. Though previously under-investigated, TILT has now been studied in over a dozen countries. And the existence of this very symposium, coupled with its “fragrance-free” seating zone, suggests that recognition is continuing to grow.

At the symposium, I was intrigued to have met and been joined by speakers directly afflicted by chemical intolerance. One woman, an Associate Professor at the University of California-Davis, told the story of debilitating symptoms that haunted her for years. Seemingly unable to be indoors due to the presence of some unknown chemical agent, her ability to work and function fell under attack. Fortunately, a light bulb went on and she was ultimately able to pinpoint the culprit — carpet. With the subsequent removal of carpet from her office and avoidance of other carpeted spaces, her symptoms faded and her health was restored.

Given my line of work, I was alarmed but not shocked to learn carpet had caused her symptoms. Most carpets outgas an unintended toxicant called 4-phenylcyclohexene, or 4-PCH, which is produced during the manufacturing of carpet adhesive. It’s 4-PCH that gives carpet that “new” smell. It’s also this chemical that was implicated in massive illness among U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees in 1987 when 27,000 square yards of new carpet were laid at the EPA headquarters building in Washington, D.C. The carpet was consequently removed.

Also taking the symposium stage was Ana Soto, a Tufts University professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Pathobiology. She recalled repeated laboratory work in which the estrogen-mimicking chemical bisphenol-A contaminated her experiments. It wasn’t long before the source was traced to the plastic materials used in her lab. Soon, BpA would become a widely recognized contaminant of foods and beverages housed in the same types of plastics. Thanks to consumers demand, industry has largely shifted away from BpA. Though, studies show that its chemical replacement, BpS, is not much better, and may be even worse.

Synthetic fragrance was yet another star of the symposium. Containing chemicals called phthalates, fragrances are known to have similar-hormone mimicking effects. But unlike BpA, phthalates are nowhere close to being phased out or banned, making them of even greater concern.

“Science is not always science for the sake of knowledge,” Dr. Soto pointed out. Her words were echoed by University of California-Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, whose unwelcomed fame arose when agrochemical giant Syngenta, then Novartis, attacked his career and personal life after Hayes published studies demonstrating that one of the company’s top selling herbicides, atrazine, caused adverse hormonal effects in frogs. Although the European Union banned atrazine over a decade ago, Syngenta’s counter-publications aimed at confusing the science have managed to keep the chemical in widespread use in the United States today. The ability of large corporations to disrupt the chemical regulation process underscores the importance of taking charge of your own health and being cautious even with chemicals currently on the market.

Creating a shift toward healthier products can be achieved in two ways; via top-down regulation, or bottom-up consumer pressure. If history has taught us anything, the latter strategy is the quick ticket. Shifting the market, however, starts with consumer awareness. A recurring theme throughout the UCLA symposium was the overall lack of regulatory oversight for chemicals in cosmetics, home building materials, and the cocktail of pesticides to which we’re constantly exposed. Given the new authority heading the EPA, we can expect little improvement for now. It’s therefore prudent to act as your own EPA, and ban chemicals from your personal space that are unsafe. The Environmental Working Group, Toxic Talks Blog, and others websites are good places to get informed. Become chemically aware, and vote with your dollar. By choosing safer products, together we can shift the market and secure a healthier future.