Swimming in Chemical Soup

by Sasha Karapetrova

An illustration of a worker picking strawberries in a field tangled in vines with the names of various endocrine disrupting chemicals written on them. A factory looms in the background. Illustration by Kristian Talley.

The harmful chemicals that are all around us (whether we like it or not).

October 16, 2017

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are in the air that we breathe, buildings we enter, in the food that we eat, and maybe most frighteningly pass down generationally. We endure exposure without our consent and the threat they pose to our health goes unrecognized by government or industry institutions. At the conference Chemical Entanglements: Gender, Chemicals, and the Public Health, organizers recognized that there is an immediate need to create “interdisciplinary awareness” on EDCs.  “Women are at the forefront of environmental activism” and yet are “marginalized and ridiculed when raising the alarm of untested and poorly tested chemicals”, explained by Dr. Rachel Lee, the director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. Scientists need to commit to communicating endocrine disruptor information to promote the living, existing, and support of communities that experience health threats from EDCs.

Looking through the Chemical Lens

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the hormonal activity, generally known as the communication and signaling network, of our bodies. This includes halogen and dioxin species, phthalates, plasticizers, pesticides, and heavy metals that affect neural and organ systems. The omnipresence of these toxins may affect bodies in low doses and individualized combinations, making it difficult for obvious symptoms to rise. This gradual build-up in body tissues can lead to terminal illness like central nervous system failure or various cancers. For example, upstream of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California is the superfund site, Leviathan mine, which leaches Aluminum, Arsenic, Cadmium, Iron, Thallium, Nickel, Selenium, and Manganese into the sediment and surface water of streams. Traces of these metals are found in the drinking water and travel through the food chain by land cultivation, and its health threat is measured by consistent pregnancy problems, cancer cases, and potentially several other health effects that have not been measured.

Effects of EDCs may not always be brought to the degree of a terminal illness, but can instead permanently disable a body. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), or Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT), manifests symptoms after a triggering event caused by a previously experienced endocrine disruption. A person with MCS may find it very difficult to walk down the street with car fumes, scented body sprays, or tobacco smoke because of an unwarranted full body response like shock to the senses, debilitating pain, or overall loss of regular function. In the current Western medical system, a person with MCS or TILT may be deemed as “ok” because of lack of symptoms in the absence of chemical triggering. Dr. Mel Y. Chen, a leading academic with MCS, explains MCS further as “environmental illness restages expected forms of sociality, rendering them as queer, disordered proximities, in the case of molecular intimacies and orientations”. A person with MCS experiences social spaces, by not being able to enter them at all or rather having to enter with anxiety of having leave if they experience MCS symptoms. Peggy Munson, an activist for MCS, advocates for fragrance-free products and spaces so that people with MCS can share the same spaces and air, and share spaces with those who might not have MCS.

Systems of Biological Barrages

Industries and markets that depend on EDCs for production, for example a company with products marketed based on their “fragrance”, are not compelled to change their product unless there are trade-offs and market shifts. In other words, a company will only minimize the health risk of their product if it will allow them to make a greater profit. Due to proprietary laws, companies do not have to disclose the presence of scents and therefore can label phthalates in cleaning supplies like Windex, as “fragrance”. Yet, studies have shown that phthalates permeate the skin easily, entering the bloodstream, and bring down sperm counts in men and possibly have other unmeasured side effects, like many EDCs. So why don’t people just stop buying products like Windex?

As Dr. Alexandra Apolloni, program representative for the Center for the Study of Women, describes the decision between buying a product with EDCs or a product without EDCs as “an illusion of choice”. The information about the EDC content in a product is not readily available nor accessible by the consumer. Even if a person exposed to EDCs knows about the health concern, the opportunity to have less exposure to EDCs is non-existent. Accessibility restrictions based on gender, class, illness/disability, or race will prevent the opportunity to move to a neighborhood where absence of railyard air alleviates asthma, to switch to a job where oven cleaners and fragranced soaps are not required, or buy the pesticide free food over the food that they have been buying their whole lives.

The program Black Women for Wellness, reports that the products marketed to and used by Black women are some of the most toxic on the market, and yet are not featured on product databases like skin deep and the environmental working group.[1] Giving rise to the question of how are stylists and consumers supposed to know what is in the products that they use. Chemicals in hair, skin, and nail products have been linked to skin irritation, reproductive, cancer, and neurological disorders, at alarming rates in professionals who are exposed to these chemicals for the 8+ hours and 5+ days a week that they are working in salons. Although the natural hair care movement has been successful in diverting consumers from some harmful products in the Black hair product market, as Dr. Lee describes “consumer based resistance has some problems, because it’s only the idea that the consumer has agency. You can’t think about labor, the scientists, the pipeline for that kind of industry. Precautionary consumerism is a type of indictment of regulatory agencies. We have to do this because the regulatory agencies are not there to support us and the idea is that we have to do this every day vigilance. Yet no one can actually do this [vigilance]”.

Surviving the EDC Soup

Community organizers in urban areas depend on the accessibility of EDC health impact knowledge to community members, and communication between state and industry institutions. mark! Lopez at the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice is a third generation activist fighting Exide, a battery recycling facility that has released 7 million pounds of atmospheric lead into East LA and Southeast Los Angeles communities. Waiting for mandatory soil clean up from the state or consumer activism to lead to a market shift or boycott of batteries is not an option for the survival of East and Southeast Los Angeles communities. Lopez goes door to door to disseminate information about the lead pollution in his community and connects scientific research about the several mile radius spread of the lead to state institutions. Martha Dina Arguello, organizes to create health and safety buffer zones free of the surfactants used to mask oil extraction activity and prevent exposure to the drilling activity in the Southern California region, which has two of the largest urban drilling operations in South Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. Her work also highlights how the broken regulatory system promotes the needs of industry over residents. Martha brings together physicians and scientists who testify about the health in their communities in order to spark state administrative action.

Regulatory systems continue to fail the communities that they claim to help, and thus are rendered “broken”. For the Navajo Nation, staying on the reservation in the face of the Church Rock uranium mill spill in 1979 and the run offs from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 is an act of preserving culture and community. Dr. Theresa Montoya highlights how policy makers tend to “treat contamination as discrete discharge ‘events’ while obscuring the enduring structures of toxicity itself”, the structures being a part of “the North American settler colonial project”. While Europe has a precautionary principle, taking products off the market if they are suspicious of chemical toxicity until disproven otherwise, the United States depends on institutions like the FDA and EPA, which have loopholes in their consumer safety acts. Furthermore, federal agencies lose credibility by offering inadequate resources in times of emergency. For example, contaminated water tanks were used to bring water for livestock on Diné land, and agencies have ignored community demands like bringing sufficient amount of water to sustain livestock, thereby endangering the communities’ livelihood.

Messaging Matters: Preventing Exposure to EDCs

It is important to note that the conference, Chemical Entanglements, began as a series of exchanges between UCLA Professors Patricia Guwoty of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biological sciences and Rachel Lee of the Departments of English and Gender Studies. Cross disciplinary discussion about EDCs generated several distinct opportunities to represent the health concerns of EDCs. One of such opportunities was for scientists to learn how to communicate their studies to essentially every individual, outside of peer-reviewed journals. For example, Dr. Lee looks towards the undergraduate research group affiliated with the conference for ideas for effective messaging. “We need better messaging”, states Dr. Lee. Knowledge about everyday toxicities is not becoming a meme and isn’t fan-based. Rather “not that it needs clarity, but it needs to be affective and emotional” and “last longer than a news cycle”.

For example, renowned scientist Dr. Tyrone Hayes studies the effects of atrazine on the African clawed frog. Dr. Hayes has published on the effects of the pesticide on the frog genitalia and on their subsequent top/bottom behavior. Although Dr. Hayes has created a gender spectrum for the frogs with four key genders, there is much work to be done on the bioessentialist language of the field. Dr. Hayes has shared his research outside of academia, despite the violent attempts to defame and invalidate his research by the company Novartis. As Dr. Rachel Lee describes, “the secret is to have several versions of your research: one you do for a five year old, a different discipline, a novelist, for your peer review group, and it’s hard because in the academy we privilege the latter”. Teaching is how we get people to mobilize, and remember how we all had to take math, reading, social studies, history, and science in high school? Well by taking it back, “we need to remember how to be a polymath again, like in high school” in order to creative effective communication on the toxicity of EDCs.

Video Resources:

[1] Natural Evolutions: One Hair Story. A five year study of the Black Beauty Industry by the Black Women for Wellness Center. 


Sasha Karapetrova is a solar engineer, commercially-licensed driver, extremophile lover, and certified best friend. When brain space isn’t dedicated to queering gender performativity, transnationalism, and all things molecular biology related, Sasha loves frolicking in rural Russian fields, visiting museums in the snowy Eastern Sierra, and skating down the street to play pick-up soccer in Chicago’s Jackson park. Catch Sasha doing more Baba Yaga witchcraft on the gram @sashawasha23!