In the mid-20th Century, the mantra “better living through chemistry” emerged as a guiding principle for American industrial production and consumer culture. Decades on, alarming questions about the results of such approaches have emerged. We are exposed to many powerful substances on a daily basis – from flame-retardant chemicals found in sofas to hidden synthetic chemicals in fragranced cosmetic products. Consumers struggle to stay informed while the private chemical industry faces insufficient regulation, and researchers continue to raise the alarm as they deepen their understanding of the long-term impacts of chemical exposures on our health and well-being.

Furthermore, experiences and consequences of chemical exposure are shaped by gender. Women constitute the prime audience for the marketing of cosmetics and household goods that often contain toxic substances. The products used in female-dominated industries – including cleaning and beauty industries – are poorly regulated, and the women who work in such environments are exposed to skin, eye, and respiratory irritants and experience high rates of related illness. [1] In addition, dispossession caused by racial and socioeconomic inequality plays a significant role in exposure risk. Women also report higher incidences of medical conditions, such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which have ties to chemical exposure and are severely under-researched .[2] Men, too, are affected in specific ways: male soldiers, for instance, were the subjects of mustard gas experiments in World War II, and predominantly male populations of veterans suffer from Gulf War Syndrome, an illness with links to military chemical usage. [3] And transgender people are discovering and sharing stories of linkages between chemical exposures (in utero) and their gender alignment (or not) with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.

Chemical Entanglements is a research initiative launched by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women that will explore the gendered dynamics of chemical exposure—and seek new ways of protecting public health. We’re bringing together activists and advocates; policy makers, clinicians and chemists; historians and sociologists; and writers, artists, and humanists to develop strategies for educating the public and recommending policies that will protect our health and combat the underlying social inequality that results in the gendered impact of chemical exposure.

Through our Chemical Entanglements blog posts, we’ll tell the stories of exposure, and how it has shaped the lives and gendered experiences of individuals and communities in both subtle and dramatic ways. In doing so, we hope to broaden the conversation and raise awareness about everyday health risks about which many people are unaware. We will also use this blog as a place to share resources and educational material to help readers develop strategies for safeguarding their health. We do so in the spirit of the long history of feminist activists who used knowledge-sharing as a means of empowering women to assert control over their bodies and well-being.

We’re also delighted to be cross-posting our Chemical Entanglements blog posts both on our website and at Hippo Reads! We’re thrilled to be joining the vibrant conversations that are happening at Hippo.

Finally, we welcome stories, essays, and other contributions to the Chemical Entanglements blog and project. If you would like to write for us, please submit a proposal or a pitch here.

[1] See Teniope Adewumi, Analysis of Occupational Exposures of Black Hair Care Professionals in Predominantly Black Salons (MS thesis, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, 2015); Mercedes Medina-Ramón et al., “Asthma, chronic bronchitis, and exposure to agents in occupational domestic cleaning: a nested case-control study,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62, no. 9 (2005), 598-606; and Cora Roelofs et al., “Results from a Community-based Occupational Health Survey of Vietnamese-American Nail Salon Workers,” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health 10, no. 4 (2008), 353-361.

[2] See Stanley M. Caress and Anne C. Steinemann, “A National Population Survey of the Prevalence of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity,” Archives of Environmental Health 59, no. 6 (2004), 300-305; and Judith A. Richman and Leonard A. Jason, “Gender Biases Underlying the Social Construction of Illness States: The Case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” Current Sociology 49, no. 3 (2001), 15-29.

[3] See Constance M. Pechura and David P. Rall, Veterans at Risk: The Health Effects of Mustard Gas and Lewisite (Washington, National Academy Press, 1993).

About The Author

Avatar photo

The UCLA Center for the Study of Women is an internationally recognized center for research on gender, sexuality, and women’s issues and the first organized research unit of its kind in the University of California system. CSW is part of the UCLA Division of Social Sciences’ commitment to gender equity and research parity at UCLA. Its mission is to develop and foster research, to facilitate productive scholarly relationships, and to aid recruitment and retention efforts. Established in 1984, it draws on the expertise of more than two hundred members from thirty-four departments and ten UCLA professional schools. CSW administers research grants for faculty and students; organizes research projects, conferences, seminars, and public lectures; and publishes policy briefs and blogs that feature research updates, conference reports, faculty profiles, bibliographies, field reports, book reviews, and announcements. In 2017, CSW will host Chemical Entanglements: Gender and Exposure, a symposium on gender and environmental toxicity.