By Lindsay McCormick
Every day we are exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals we can’t see —chemicals used in everything from the clothes we wear to the lotions we use and even the couch we sit on. Synthetic chemicals are used to make 96% of products in the United States. Yet scientific research continues to link chemicals in common use to health effects like cancer, infertility, and asthma.
EDF selected 10 individuals across the country to wear a novel wristband technology designed to detect chemicals in their environment for one week – including Gordon, Karen, and Averi.
Gordon is a lieutenant for the Memphis Fire Department. Gordon’s wristband detected 16 chemicals, including gamma-chlordane, a pesticide that has been banned in the U.S. since the 1980s, and 3,4-dichlorophenyl isocyanate, a “chemical intermediate,” which is reportedly used exclusively for chemical manufacturing processes. While there were no fires to fight the week he wore the wristband, Gordon wondered if he came into contact with these chemicals from a site visit to a location that formerly housed chemical stockpiles, his local auto repair shop, the nearby highway – or even his fire suit.
Karen is an 8th grade science teacher who engages her students in citizen science projects like measuring air pollutants using portable air monitors. The chemical-detecting wristband was another great teaching tool for Karen’s students. Among other chemicals, Karen’s wristband detected the flame retardant BDE 47, which was phased out of U.S. production in the mid-2000s due to health impacts on the developing brain and persistence in the environment. Karen hopes that personal exposure monitors like the wristband will become more available to the general public in the future, noting that her students would love to wear the wristbands themselves: “The students are very curious. They love this project!”
Averi is a student at The College of Wooster, currently doing her senior research project on sustainable interior design. Averi’s wristband detected several chemicals that can be found in personal care products – such as lotions, shampoos and conditioners – including the fragrance enhancer diethyl phthalate, the preservative benzyl benzoate and the synthetic fragrance galaxolide. After wearing the wristband, Averi reflected, “It struck me that I may be interacting with the most toxic chemicals when I am showering… in the place where I am trying to get clean.”
The wristbands and other emerging chemical monitoring technologies promise to transform our understanding of environmental exposures to chemicals – by making the invisible, visible – and in so doing, open up new opportunities for reducing exposures.