The role of pollution from household and personal care products continues to go unrecognized

Research Area: 

Despite information campaigns that warn consumers about chemical risks from household and personal care products, people often fail to make the connection between those products and their personal exposure to chemicals that could harm their health, according to research based on Silent Spring Institute’s Household Exposure 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, the study’s lead author. The study, “Pollution Comes Home and Gets Personal: Women’s Experience of Household Chemical Exposure,” appears in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Altman and the Silent Spring Institute 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 at the number of contaminants detected. They initially had difficulty relating the chemical results for their homes with their images of environmental pollution, which they associated with toxic contamination originating from military and industrial activities, accidents, and 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.”

Some scientists and government officials have worried that sharing information with the participants of such studies would evoke fear. The interdisciplinary research team discovered, however, that the women who learned about chemicals in their homes and bodies were not alarmed but eager for more information. They wanted to know more about how the household and personal care products could expose them to chemicals that could affect their health. They expressed more concern about the level of chemicals than about the number of chemicals, and they pressed the researchers to tell them how concerned they should be about the levels found and how to take action.

The researchers interviewed 25 women, all of whom had participated in an earlier study, Silent Spring Institute’s Household Exposure Study, which tested for 89 environmental pollutants in air, dust, and urine samples from 120 households in rural and suburban communities on Cape Cod. The study found an average of 20 target chemicals per home, including pesticides and compounds from plastics, cleaners, furniture, cosmetics, and other products. Nearly all the study participants 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 the first to investigate the experience of personal-results reporting in a study of a wide range of contaminants. It is also among the first to apply the tools and perspectives of sociology to biomonitoring and exposure assessment research. The Household Exposure Study was among the first to adopt a right-to-know framework for reporting all results to interested participants.

The new study was coauthored by Rachel Morello-Frosch, an epidemiologist and environmental health scientist at the University of California–Berkeley; Julia Green Brody, executive director of Silent Spring Institute; Ruthann Rudel, a senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute; Phil Brown, a sociologist at Brown University; and Mara Averick, an undergraduate research assistant from Brown University.

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