Chemical Entanglements: An Introduction

In the mid-20th Century, the mantra “better living through chemistry” emerged as a guiding principle for American industrial production and consumer culture. Decades on, alarming questions about the results of such approaches have emerged. We are exposed to many powerful substances on a daily basis – from flame-retardant chemicals found in sofas to hidden synthetic chemicals in fragranced cosmetic products. Consumers struggle to stay informed while the private chemical industry faces insufficient regulation, and researchers continue to raise the alarm as they deepen their understanding of the long-term impacts of chemical exposures on our health and well-being.

Furthermore, experiences and consequences of chemical exposure are shaped by gender. Women constitute the prime audience for the marketing of cosmetics and household goods that often contain toxic substances. The products used in female-dominated industries – including cleaning and beauty industries – are poorly regulated, and the women who work in such environments are exposed to skin, eye, and respiratory irritants and experience high rates of related illness.[1] In addition, dispossession caused by racial and socioeconomic inequality plays a significant role in exposure risk. Women also report higher incidences of medical conditions, such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT), and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), which have ties to chemical exposure and are severely under-researched.[2] Men, too, are affected in specific ways: male soldiers, for instance, were the subjects of mustard gas experiments in World War II, and predominantly male populations of veterans suffer from Gulf War Syndrome, an illness with links to military chemical usage.[3] And transgender people are discovering and sharing stories of linkages between chemical exposures (in utero) and their their gender alignment (or not) with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.

Chemical Entanglements is a research initiative launched by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women that will explore the gendered dynamics of chemical exposure—and seek new ways of protecting public health. We’re bringing together activists and advocates; policy makers, clinicians and chemists; historians and sociologists; and writers, artists, and humanists to develop strategies for educating the public and recommending policies that will protect our health and combat the underlying social inequality that results in the gendered impact of chemical exposure.

We’re using this blog to tell the stories of exposure, and how it has shaped the lives and gendered experiences of individuals and communities in both subtle and dramatic ways. In doing so, we hope to broaden the conversation and raise awareness about everyday health risks about which many people are unaware. We will also use this blog as a place to share resources and educational material to help readers develop strategies for safeguarding their health. We do so in the spirit of the long history of feminist activists who used knowledge-sharing as a means of empowering women to assert control over their bodies and well-being.

We’re also delighted to be cross-posting our Chemical Entanglements blog posts at Hippo Reads! Be sure to join in the conversation over at Hippo.

We welcome stories, essays, and other contributions to the Chemical Entanglements blog. If you would like to write for us, please submit a proposal or a pitch here.


[1] See Teniope Adewumi, Analysis of Occupational Exposures of Black Hair Care Professionals in Predominantly Black Salons (MS thesis, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, 2015); Mercedes Medina-Ramón et al., “Asthma, chronic bronchitis, and exposure to agents in occupational domestic cleaning: a nested case-control study,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62, no. 9 (2005), 598-606; and Cora Roelofs et al., “Results from a Community-based Occupational Health Survey of Vietnamese-American Nail Salon Workers,” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health 10, no. 4 (2008), 353-361.

[2] See Stanley M. Caress and Anne C. Steinemann, “A National Population Survey of the Prevalence of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity,” Archives of Environmental Health 59, no. 6 (2004), 300-305; and Judith A. Richman and Leonard A. Jason, “Gender Biases Underlying the Social Construction of Illness States: The Case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” Current Sociology 49, no. 3 (2001), 15-29.

[3] See Constance M. Pechura and David P. Rall, Veterans at Risk: The Health Effects of Mustard Gas and Lewisite (Washington, National Academy Press, 1993).


Image: Staff testing chemical properties of fuels and lubricants at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland Ohio, now known as John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. Courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center/