College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Household Exposure To Toxic Chemicals Lurks Unrecognized

January 2, 2009

Although Americans are becoming increasingly aware of toxic chemical exposure from everyday household products like bisphenol A in some baby bottles and lead in some toys, women do not readily connect typical household products with personal chemical exposure and related adverse health effects, according to research from the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Rachel Morello-Frosch, an epidemiologist and environmental health scientist within ESPM and the School of Public Health, is a co-author of the study.

“People more readily equate pollution with large-scale contamination and environmental disasters, yet the products and activities that form the backdrop to our everyday lives — electronics, cleaners, beauty products, food packaging — are a significant source of daily personal chemical exposure that accumulates over time,” said Brown University sociologist Rebecca Gasior Altman, lead author of the study.

Altman, Morello-Frosch, and the team examined how women interpreted and reacted to information about chemical contamination in their homes and bodies. After reviewing their personal chemical exposure data, most women were surprised and puzzled at the number of contaminants detected. They initially had difficulty relating the chemical results for their homes, located in rural and suburban communities, with their images of environmental problems, which they associated with toxic contamination originating outside the home from military or industrial activities, accidents or dumping.

“This research illustrates how science is beginning to play a paramount role in discovering and redefining environmental problems that are not immediately perceptible through direct experience,” Altman said. “Pollution at home has been a blind spot for society. The study documents that an important shift occurs in how people understand environmental pollution, its sources and possible solutions as they learn about chemicals from everyday products that are detectable in urine samples and the household dust collecting under the sofa.”

Though some scientists and government officials worry such information will provoke fears, the interdisciplinary team discovered that people who learned about chemicals in their homes and bodies were not alarmed and were eager for more, not less, information about how typical household products can expose them to chemicals that may affect health.

The researchers interviewed 25 women, all of whom had participated in an earlier study, the Silent Spring Institute’s Household Exposure Study (HES), which tested for 89 environmental pollutants in air, dust and urine samples from 120 Cape Cod households. The study found about 20 target chemicals per home on average, including pesticides and compounds from plastics, cleaners, furniture, cosmetics, and other products. Nearly all participants in the HES chose to learn their personal results, and the 25 selected for the current research were interviewed about their experiences learning the results for their home and the study as a whole.

This new study is among the first to apply the tools and perspectives of sociology to biomonitoring and exposure assessment research, and is the first to investigate the experience of personal results-reporting in a study of a wide range of contaminants. According to the researchers, the Household Exposure Study has set an example that is shifting scientific practice, as it was among the first to adopt a right-to-know framework for reporting all results to interested participants.

In addition to Altman and Morello-Frosch, this study was co-authored by Brown University sociologist Phil Brown; Julia Green Brody and Ruthann Rudel, environmental health scientists at Silent Spring Institute; and Mara Averick, a 2006 graduate of Brown who served as a research assistant as an undergraduate.

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