A Memphis (TN) firefighter participated in a nationwide effort led by the Environmental Defense Fund to identify chemicals in our environment. The project used a cutting-edge technology— a simple looking silicone wristband—that can track the synthetic chemicals that are used in products all around us. Gordon Ginsberg was one of 10 participants across the country who wore the wristband for a week to help EDF experts shed light on the previously invisible problem of hazardous chemicals in our lives.
“As a firefighter, I have to have a practical understanding of what goes into the products in our homes, our schools and our workplaces,” said Gordon. “So I was especially curious to see what chemicals my wristband picked up and learn about how they might impact our health. I was surprised to learn one of them was a chemical banned 30 years ago.”
Gordon is a Lieutenant for the Memphis Fire Department. Although there were no fires to fight the week he wore the wristband, he still came into contact with a number of hazardous chemicals through his home environment and routine work maintaining fire station equipment, responding to medical calls, and visiting commercial and industrial sites. Among those chemicals was 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. Gordon wondered if he came into contact with these chemicals from a site visit to a location that formerly housed chemical stock piles, his local auto repair shop, the nearby highway – or even his fire suit.
Synthetic chemicals are used to make 96% of products in the United States, from couches and carpets to the clothes we wear. While chemicals are a critical part of modern life, they are also released into our environment—and end up in our food, water and air – which can result in harmful chemical exposures. Scientific research is increasingly linking chemicals in common use to some cancers, infertility, diabetes, Parkinson’s and other illnesses. Pregnant woman, infants, and children are especially vulnerable.
Yet, data on the general population’s exposure to hazardous chemicals is very poor, and we know little about the safety of the tens of thousands of chemicals in use today. Scientists and government officials have insufficient data about exactly what chemicals Americans are exposed to every day, and in what amounts. We need better data to understand potential risks to our health from daily chemical exposure – and to improve our ability to reduce risk through government action, market-based solutions, and individual choices. The EDF-led project made use of new technology from MyExposome, Inc., developed by researchers at Oregon State University (OSU), using a simple silicone wristband like those worn in support of causes, to detect chemicals.
Sarah Vogel, Vice President of EDF’s health program said, “Synthetic chemicals have changed the way we live in innumerable ways, from wrinkle-free shirts to stain-resistant carpets. Unfortunately, we know that some chemicals in wide use can impact our health. But we have surprisingly little understanding of the complex mixture of chemicals in our environment and how they may impact our health. Gordon’s role in this project helped us raise awareness about the need to make this problem visible and find lasting solutions to protect our health.”
The monitors are surprisingly simple: Silicone wristbands are specially prepared to act as a sponge to absorb hundreds of different chemicals (current analytic methods detect over 1,400) in our environment—in the air, water, and even personal care products. The wristbands can detect organic chemical compounds in the environment, but not metals (e.g., lead and mercury) or inorganic air pollutants (e.g., ozone and sulfur dioxide). More detailed background on the wristbands is at myexposome.com and additional information on the wristbands and on the other participants in the EDF-led project is available at edf.org/wristbands.