Chemical Entanglements: Environmental Impacts and Feminist Responses

A Response to CSW’s Chemical Entanglements Symposium by CSW Director Rachel C. Lee

On May 4-5, 2017, the Center for the Study of Women hosted a two-day symposium on Chemical Entanglements: Gender and Exposure.

The symposium assembled three types of stakeholders: scientific authorities on both the gender-specific and overall health-depleting and cascading effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and other poorly regulated chemical hazards (including Andrea Gore, Ana Soto, Tyrone Hayes, and Karim Ahmed); local community activists and educators attuned to how exposures to dirty industries (proximity to environmental hazards) correlate with other types of socioeconomic disenfranchisement suffered by people-of-color and the poor (Martha Dina Arguello, Mark Lopez, and Kim Fortun), and “canary” storytellers: i.e. visual artists, ethnographers, and poets variously self-identified or in solidarity with a growing subset of the US population–those environmentally ill and transgenerationally affected by un(der)regulated toxic hazards and nuclear incorporation (Liza Grandia, Peggy Munson, Jesse Cohen, and Theresa Montoya).  (See for a full listing of speakers, along with their biographies and talk abstracts.)

Narrating the Gendered Effects of Exposure

CE emphasized that EDCs can have spectacular gender-bending effects–cue Tyrone Hayes’s slides showing frog testes with eggs protruding out of their sacs (!)–and that it is in responsive support of trans, intersex, and cis-gendered populations that we must disseminate the findings on how even extremely low levels of EDCs unseat the old toxicological wisdom that dose makes poison and have outsize effects not only on reproductive systems but on interfering with brain function, mood, immunity, and metabolic (dis)order (not to mention contributing to the likelihood of cancer).  CE also emphasized that while two decades ago, environmental illness seemed to skew more toward women, who self-identified as disabled by Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in greater numbers, the cutting-edge research is showing that men are in greater proportions also reporting illnesses of endocrine-disruption and chemical sensitivity.  In the context of rising rates of hypospadias, ADHD, autism, etc., investigators are hypothesizing environmental contributors.  But still only a robust small subset of the public is actively seeking to change (indoor) environments.  Chemical exposures have gendered effects and we are swimming in them. The feminist and environmental justice responses are several.

The public portion of CE opened with a keynote by LA Times Book Award-winning science journalist Florence Williams, who has investigated the female breast as an unintentional “sink” for hormone-disrupting environmental toxicants.  She spoke of her own investigation into EDCs beginning with her concern over what exactly was in the breastmilk she and other American women were producing for their newborns, and whether the new technologies to measure body burdens and traces of toxic chemicals in urine, milk, and blood could help Americans understand the both growing rates of breast and other cancers and their own states of health in ways that conventional clinical medicine has not yet made standard.

The second day of the symposium began with a tremendous opening panel, “David and Goliath,” featuring excellent presentations by endocrinologist Andrea Gore on her years of work raising the issue of EDC’s as a key site of under and non-regulation to both her scientific colleagues and her correcting industry-funded misinformation and its undue influence on policy makers; Tyrone Hayes on his efforts to raise awareness of the effects of the pesticide Atrazine, and Martha Dinna Argüello on environmental activism around urban oil drilling. This panel was followed by three others, one called “Everyday Life, Everyday Labs,” another called “Diagnosis and Destigmatization,” and a final panel, “Transgenerational Effects,” which featured mark! Lopez, recent recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Education and Outreach Efforts

One of the signal innovations of the Chemical Entanglements symposium involved the eleven-month education and networking infrastructure preceding the public events in 2017. This infrastructure took the forms of 1) a series of digital publications circulated on the web and through social media, 2) an undergraduate working group populated by students from the departments of Public Health, Human Biology and Society, Gender Studies, Integrative Biology, Film and Television, Global Studies, and Asian-American Studies who focused on how to tell effective stories regarding the non-consensual endocrine disruption of college students like themselves, and 3) a grad student and faculty working group comprised of those either working specifically on EDC’s or on allied projects.  These components both spread awareness of the scholarship to be featured at the symposium and also produced content, key pressure points, and discussion topics that were then taken up in the private half day meeting with the conference organizers and speakers.  In addition, the undergraduate working group produced a short video that depicted the countless chemicals that a typical undergrad breathed in, rubbed on her body, or swallowed over the course of her first waking hour.  The video left unexplained the hazardous effects of these substances to emphasize the enormous data gaps haunting our regulatory bodies. The structured ignorance is such that we cannot protest or litigate against specific companies as the proprietary right to hold these compounds contents secret helps industry continue to put profits before safety.

Finally, beginning in the summer of 2016, CSW partnered with Hippo Reads to curate a series of essays situating the symposium’s focus—on the continued man-made perils of chemical carcinogens and nerve agents still poorly regulated and infused into our everyday lives—within a longer historical context in which chemical war agents were domesticated for use in agriculture and pest control, where the dangerous effects of novel technologies were tested on human guinea pigs drawn from the ranks of poor and/or nonwhite populations, and where otherwise healthy populations started reporting seemingly outsized effects of intoxication from their normal built environments.

Moving Forward: the Challenges of Communication and Action

During conversations among the panelists, a notable frustration in the face of the slow pace of government bodies to enact effective change was expressed by scientist speakers who had discovered the presence of hormonally disruptive chemicals decades earlier.  Some felt that they hadn’t communicated their findings effectively and thought that the public needed more education on the PR misinformation campaigns of industry. They looked to the humanists in the room for guidance in delivering their messages in ways that would make a measurable impact. However, humanists were more willing to see the issue not a case of ineffective scientific messaging. Scientists theorized that once their knowledge was delivered it would be rationally accepted and acted upon. Instead, humanists theorized that citizens are invested in believing consumer products are safe because we assume that the FDA and consumer safety act are serving the public interest.  Indeed, the delight in consumerism is an attachment greater than attachment to scientific authority.

In recent weeks, the California State senate passed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, which, at time of writing, awaits the signature of Governor Jerry Brown. If passed, this act would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of substances like phthalates and bisphenol A in consumer products. While a welcome step, we hope that it is only the first step of many. The lessons of the Chemical Entanglements symposium reveal that this issue requires a bold approach.