How is chemical exposure linked to gender?

Exposure to environmental toxicants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been proven to have negative impacts on human reproductive health. Because products containing such substances (cleaning products, cosmetics, etc.), are overwhelmingly marketed to women, and because environmental pollution is often concentrated near the places where people of lower economic status or people of color live; gender, race, and class can determine level of exposure and health outcomes. CSW’s Chemical Entanglements initiative is a response to this dynamic. The goal of this research project is to illuminate the way in which women have been enrolled, both as scientists and nonscientists, in chemical experiments since WWII, and to increase the chemical literacy of scholars in gender/sexuality studies. We will also reveal the gendered patterns of exposure that lead to illnesses such as Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). In so doing, we will engage activists, policymakers, physicians, and community members in efforts to develop new tools and strategies that will help identify the gendered impacts of environmental toxicants and reduce the harm that toxic exposure can cause to the health of people of all genders.

SUPPORT FOR CHEMICAL ENTANGLEMENTS

We’re thrilled to have received a number of grants in support of Chemical Entanglements, including the following:

UCLA Council on Research Faculty Research Grant/Trans-disciplinary Seed Grant

UCLA Luskin Endowment for Thought Leadership

UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Faculty Opportunity Fund

Interdisciplinary and Cross-Campus Affairs Symposia, Workshop and Planning Meeting Fund

GET INVOLVED

WATCH OUR SYMPOSIUM VIDEOS: On May 4-5, 2017, we hosted the successful Chemical Entanglements: Gender & Exposure Symposium, which convened a group of scholars, scientists and community based researchers, artists, documentarians, and policy makers to assess the gendered impacts of (primarily endocrine-disrupting) chemicals and environmental pollutants on human populations and reproductive health. Visit our YouTube channel to access the Chemical Entanglements Video Playlist.

READ OUR BLOG: The Chemical Entanglements blog features reports from the field, interviews, film reviews, and more! Read our latest updates here!

WRITE FOR THE BLOG: We want your contributions to the Chemical Entanglements blog! Find out more.

SHARE THE AIR: One simple way that you can reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals–and help safeguard the health of those around you–is by using fewer fragranced products in your everyday life. Learn more about CSW’s Share the Air initiative.

BACKGROUND AND MISSION STATEMENT

Chemical Entanglements Mission Statement

Chemical Entanglements brings together scientists, community based researchers, artists, documentarians, and policy makers to probe the gendered impacts of chemical exposures. In what ways have sex, gender, and reproduction become sites of intense interest for those studying the effects of toxic chemicals on human health? What models, methodologies and mechanisms have been developed to understand the role of environmental exposures as a factor in non-communicable diseases and chronic illnesses? While women have been at the forefront of environmental activism, they have also been marginalized and ridiculed when raising the alarm regarding the incautious circulation of untested and poorly tested chemicals. Furthermore, through feminized roles, women have been disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals that have been explicitly marketed to women and structured around the reinforcement of gender and racialized beauty norms. How have economic and racial disparities as well as global North/South divisions rendered certain populations more vulnerable to exposures from pesticides, carbon emissions, ambient formaldehyde, polluted waterways, and personal care products, to name a few sources? Through discussion of these intersectional issues, Chemical Entanglements aims to develop tools to educate clinicians, workplaces, and the next generation on the state of the science, barriers to effective regulation, models of activism and community outreach, under-recognized sources of exposure to EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) in the built environment, and best practices to address non-communicable diseases that such chemicals induce as well as social barriers to accessibility.

Background and History on Gender and Exposure

We aim to formulate both traditional and new avenues for pursuing interdisciplinary research on the topic of chemicals and gender, from mapping the specific sub-disciplines of chemistry in which U.S. women have pursued scientific careers to exploring the non-intuitive intimacies, social ties, and cross-disciplinary affinities that are being made visible by way of a renewed attention to environmental effects on health. For instance, in a Fall 2014 CSW lecture on the topic of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India, feminist scientists Deboleena Roy and Banu Subramaniam drew UCLA’s attention to the agency of the non-living actant, methyl isocyanate, to induce birth defects and miscarriages in the women of Madhya Pradesh (among other overmorbidity and overmortality effects), and to the recent history whereby thirty years hence, this same region–which had witnessed 3500 to 8000 deaths and a half a million injuries because of the gas leak—currently finds itself a popular destination for infertile couples from abroad looking for gestational surrogates.[1]  Here we see a remarkable set of events in which the clinical attention following the aftermath of chemical disaster, the commercialization of global reproductive services, and the vast economic unevenness between the global North and South combine to frame the women of Madhya Pradesh as already habituated to their bioavailability, primed for enrollment in gestational labor for the IVF industry. What roles have community scientists and feminist activists played and what roles can they come to play in this scenario?

More recently, Vanessa Agard-Jones, in the course of her research into same-sex desire in Martinique, has eloquently made a case for the need for cross-disciplinary methods that pay attention to what kinds of stories are told regarding the legacy of pesticide exposure on descendants of plantation workers.[2] How do ethnographies that intersect with the itineraries of such environmental toxins address the ecological damage and health costs linked to such chemicals but also refuse frameworks that tabulate transgender identity and same-sex desire as part of those costs? A different approach to the intersection of the topics of chemicals and gender is further suggested by civil engineer Anne Steinemann as well as the Rachel Carson Institute on the presence of hazardous and endocrine -disrupting chemicals in common household products finding their way into living room dust. Chemical interactions happen increasingly in the domestic zone of the household or the sealed-in office space with environmental illness being registered in relation not only to noxious and visible clouds (as in the Bhopal gas leak) but in relation to perfumed and invisible scents from personal care products and cleaning agents advertised heavily to women. Referred to as sick building syndrome, afflictions linked to indoor air pollution might be newly studied with respect to the growing field of exposomics. What kinds of data are being collected and stories being told in relation to these quotidian exposures?

Finally, a novel approach to chemical entanglement is suggested by the work of Hannah Landecker on the chemical relation between bodies and foods suggested by new developments in epigenetics and microbiome sciences. In Landecker’s estimation, the registration of ways in which genetic material or ingested organisms are not immediately turned into fuel or building blocks but persist in the body of the eater suggests that populations are more intimately governed by what they eat—the genetic information of other species that we consume doesn’t leave us even after we burn away the energy they supply. Further, a closer kinship exists between the separate zones of genetics (thought to govern the reproduction of traits across generations) and metabolism (imagined as a system of chemical conversions of food into energy by which the organism maintains itself across the life course). New intimacies between sub-disciplines, in other words, are also being suggested by biochemical research on the effects of food.

  1. The lecture has been revised and expanded and will be appearing as “Matter in the Shadows: Feminist New Materialism and the Practices of Colonialism” in Mattering: Feminism, Science, and Materiality (NYU Press, 2016). See also Niazi, “Surrogacy Boom” (Oct 14, 2007) at http://www.boloji.com/index.cfm?md=Content&sd=Articles&ArticleID=3056
  2. See Agard-Jones, “Chlordécone in France and the Antilles” at http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/29_the_manufacturing_of_rights/404_case_1_chlord_cone_in_france_and_the_antilles