Study: Women Unaware of Household Product Risks

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. Brown University sociologist Phil Brown 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 sociologist Rebecca Gasior Altman, lead author of the study, "Pollution Comes Home and Gets Personal: Women's Experience of Household Chemical Exposure."

Altman 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 work underscores the value of having sociologists collaborate with life scientists to examine the personal experience of environmental problems," said Brown. "While there has been a rapid rise in bio-monitoring and household exposure assessment, we're lacking social science data on how people respond to research that involves their homes and bodies. Our findings are among the first to examine the full 'exposure 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."

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.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation.

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