News Article | April 26, 2017
Parents getting ready to send their kids off to college next fall might want to take note. A new study shows that students living in college dormitories are exposed to high levels of toxic flame retardants in dust. In the analysis, led by Silent Spring Institute, scientists measured dozens of flame retardants in dorm dust samples, including carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and chemicals that affect brain function. The results also included some of the highest levels ever reported. "College students spend a lot of time in their dorms--it's their home away from home. So the fact that they're being exposed to hazardous chemicals where they sleep, study, and hangout raises important health concerns," said lead author Robin Dodson, an environmental exposure scientist at Silent Spring. Earlier research by Dodson and others found flame retardants are widespread in house dust. This is the first study of its kind to look at exposure to a wide range of flame retardants in dust on college campuses. Until recently, manufacturers routinely added flame retardants to furniture--to the interior foam, the fabric, and other parts of the furniture--in order to meet flammability standards. However, the chemicals easily migrate out into the air and dust, and ultimately into people's bodies. Exposure to flame retardants has been linked with a host of health problems including cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, and lower IQ. To determine how much students are exposed, Dodson and her colleagues analyzed close to 100 dust samples collected from two U.S. college campuses in the northeast. The researchers detected 47 different flame retardant chemicals in total. Reporting April 13 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the team found: The researchers also noted differences between the two schools. One of the schools followed a more severe flammability standard for furniture--one that compels manufacturers to use more flame retardants in their products. As it turns out, dust levels of flame retardants were significantly higher on the campus that followed the more severe standard. "Our study shows that standards matter. They impact people's exposures, which can have significant impacts on their health," said Dodson. "The good news is, due to recent changes in flammability standards, institutions can now choose to follow a healthier standard that doesn't require the use of flame retardants without compromising fire safety." The findings come at a time when regulatory bodies are considering flammability standards that could result in more flame retardant chemicals being added to furniture. Studies have called into question the effectiveness of adding flame retardants to furniture foam to improve fire safety. "There are other effective and non-toxic methods such as sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, smolder-resistant furniture, and smoking bans," said co-author Kathryn Rodgers, a scientist at Silent Spring. The new study is part of a larger initiative called the Healthy Green Campus project, which educates colleges on the health risks posed by everyday toxic chemicals in products and offers guidance on how schools can reduce their chemical footprint. "By protecting students from harmful exposures on campus, we hope to create a healthier learning environment for all," said Rodgers. In light of the study's findings, the researchers hope institutions will consider adopting standards that allow campuses to switch to flame retardant-free furnishings. This could benefit the more than 3 million college students in the U.S. currently living in dormitories. In the meantime, parents can take steps to minimize their sons' and daughters' exposures at school. For instance, when stocking up on dorm room supplies this summer, they can choose upholstered products labelled flame retardant-free, look for pillows and bedding made of 100 percent polyester, cotton, or down, and avoid "egg crate" foam mattress pads. "Encouraging students to vacuum their dorm rooms every once in a while is not a bad idea either," said Dodson.
Rudel R.A.,Silent Spring Institute |
Ackerman J.M.,Silent Spring Institute |
Attfield K.R.,Silent Spring Institute |
Attfield K.R.,Boston University |
Brody J.G.,Silent Spring Institute
Environmental Health Perspectives | Year: 2014
Background: Exposure to chemicals that cause rodent mammary gland tumors is common, but few studies have evaluated potential breast cancer risks of these chemicals in humans. Objective: The goal of this review was to identify and bring together the needed tools to facilitate the measurement of biomarkers of exposure to potential breast carcinogens in breast cancer studies and biomonitoring. Methods: We conducted a structured literature search to identify measurement methods for exposure biomarkers for 102 chemicals that cause rodent mammary tumors. To evaluate concordance, we compared human and animal evidence for agents identified as plausibly linked to breast cancer in major reviews. To facilitate future application of exposure biomarkers, we compiled information about relevant cohort studies. Results: Exposure biomarkers have been developed for nearly three-quarters of these rodent mammary carcinogens. Analytical methods have been published for 73 of the chemicals. Some of the remaining chemicals could be measured using modified versions of existing methods for related chemicals. In humans, biomarkers of exposure have been measured for 62 chemicals, and for 45 in a nonoccupationally exposed population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has measured 23 in the U.S. population. Seventy-five of the rodent mammary carcinogens fall into 17 groups, based on exposure potential, carcinogenicity, and structural similarity. Carcinogenicity in humans and rodents is generally consistent, although comparisons are limited because few agents have been studied in humans. We identified 44 cohort studies, with a total of > 3.5 million women enrolled, that have recorded breast cancer incidence and stored biological samples. Conclusions: Exposure measurement methods and cohort study resources are available to expand biomonitoring and epidemiology related to breast cancer etiology and prevention.
Rudel R.A.,Silent Spring Institute |
Fenton S.E.,U.S. National Institutes of Health |
Ackerman J.M.,Silent Spring Institute |
Euling S.Y.,U.S. Environmental Protection Agency |
Makris S.L.,U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental Health Perspectives | Year: 2011
Objectives: Perturbations in mammary gland (MG) development may increase risk for later adverse effects, including lactation impairment, gynecomastia (in males), and breast cancer. Animal studies indicate that exposure to hormonally active agents leads to this type of developmental effect and related later life susceptibilities. In this review we describe current science, public health issues, and research recommendations for evaluating MG development. Data sources: The Mammary Gland Evaluation and Risk Assessment Workshop was convened in Oakland, California, USA, 16-17 November 2009, to integrate the expertise and perspectives of scientists, risk assessors, and public health advocates. Interviews were conducted with 18 experts, and seven laboratories conducted an MG slide evaluation exercise. Workshop participants discussed effects of gestational and early life exposures to hormonally active agents on MG development, the relationship of these developmental effects to lactation and cancer, the relative sensitivity of MG and other developmental end points, the relevance of animal models to humans, and methods for evaluating MG effects. Synthesis: Normal MG development and MG carcinogenesis demonstrate temporal, morphological, and mechanistic similarities among test animal species and humans. Diverse chemicals, including many not considered primarily estrogenic, alter MG development in rodents. Inconsistent reporting methods hinder comparison across studies, and relationships between altered development and effects on lactation or carcinogenesis are still being defined. In some studies, altered MG development is the most sensitive endocrine end point. Conclusions: Early life environmental exposures can alter MG development, disrupt lactation, and increase susceptibility to breast cancer. Assessment of MG development should be incorporated in chemical test guidelines and risk assessment.
Schaider L.A.,Silent Spring Institute |
Rudel R.A.,Silent Spring Institute |
Ackerman J.M.,Silent Spring Institute |
Dunagan S.C.,Silent Spring Institute |
Brody J.G.,Silent Spring Institute
Science of the Total Environment | Year: 2013
Approximately 40% of U.S. residents rely on groundwater as a source of drinking water. Groundwater, especially unconfined sand and gravel aquifers, is vulnerable to contamination from septic systems and infiltration of wastewater treatment plant effluent. In this study, we characterized concentrations of pharmaceuticals, perfluorosurfactants, and other organic wastewater compounds (OWCs) in the unconfined sand and gravel aquifer of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA, where septic systems are prevalent. Raw water samples from 20 public drinking water supply wells on Cape Cod were tested for 92 OWCs, as well as surrogates of wastewater impact. Fifteen of 20 wells contained at least one OWC; the two most frequently-detected chemicals were sulfamethoxazole (antibiotic) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (perfluorosurfactant). Maximum concentrations of sulfamethoxazole (113. ng/L) and the anticonvulsant phenytoin (66. ng/L) matched or exceeded maximum reported concentrations in other U.S. public drinking water sources. The sum of pharmaceutical concentrations and the number of detected chemicals were both significantly correlated with nitrate, boron, and extent of unsewered residential and commercial development within 500. m, indicating that wastewater surrogates can be useful for identifying wells most likely to contain OWCs. Septic systems appear to be the primary source of OWCs in Cape Cod groundwater, although wastewater treatment plants and other sources were potential contributors to several wells. These results show that drinking water supplies in unconfined aquifers where septic systems are prevalent may be among the most vulnerable to OWCs. The presence of mixtures of OWCs in drinking water raises human health concerns; a full evaluation of potential risks is limited by a lack of health-based guidelines and toxicity assessments. © 2013 The Authors.
Dodson R.E.,Silent Spring Institute |
Nishioka M.,Battelle |
Standley L.J.,Silent Spring Institute |
Standley L.J.,Clear Current LLC |
And 3 more authors.
Environmental Health Perspectives | Year: 2012
Background: Laboratory and human studies raise concerns about endocrine disruption and asthma resulting from exposure to chemicals in consumer products. Limited labeling or testing information is available to evaluate products as exposure sources. Objectives: We analytically quantified endocrine disruptors and asthma-related chemicals in a range of cosmetics, personal care products, cleaners, sunscreens, and vinyl products. We also evaluated whether product labels provide information that can be used to select products without these chemicals. Methods: We selected 213 commercial products representing 50 product types. We tested 42 composited samples of high-market-share products, and we tested 43 alternative products identified using criteria expected to minimize target compounds. Analytes included parabens, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), triclosan, ethanolamines, alkylphenols, fragrances, glycol ethers, cyclosiloxanes, and ultraviolet (UV) filters. Results: We detected 55 compounds, indicating a wide range of exposures from common products. Vinyl products contained > 10% bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and could be an important source of DEHP in homes. In other products, the highest concentrations and numbers of detects were in the fragranced products (e.g., perfume, air fresheners, and dryer sheets) and in sunscreens. Some products that did not contain the well-known endocrine-disrupting phthalates contained other less-studied phthalates (dicyclohexyl phthalate, diisononyl phthalate, and di-n-propyl phthalate; also endocrine-disrupting compounds), suggesting a substitution. Many detected chemicals were not listed on product labels. Conclusions: Common products contain complex mixtures of EDCs and asthma-related compounds. Toxicological studies of these mixtures are needed to understand their biological activity. Regarding epidemiology, our findings raise concern about potential confounding from co-occurring chemicals and misclassification due to variability in product composition. Consumers should be able to avoid some target chemicals-synthetic fragrances, BPA, and regulated active ingredients-using purchasing criteria. More complete product labeling would enable consumers to avoid the rest of the target chemicals.
News Article | February 15, 2017
Not only does dust hold a long memory of the contaminants introduced to a house, but it’s also a continual source of exposure for the residents. Dust gets resuspended when it’s disturbed and will recirculate throughout the house, picking up substances before returning once more to the floor. “Year over year, dust accumulates in the home,” says Miriam L. Diamond, an environmental chemist at the University of Toronto. Even after regular cleaning, it still accretes because homes are tightly sealed environments, and the dust gets entrenched in carpets and crevices. Dust from an old house may retain legacy pollutants such as DDT that were banned almost half a century ago, she says. Scientists study dust to try to get a handle on both of these roles: as a proxy to better understand what chemicals are in our surroundings and how they move, and as a way to characterize what exactly we are exposed to via dust. The relationship between dust and human health remains uncertain. Researchers know that dust is an important source of exposure to certain pollutants—especially for infants and toddlers, who spend 90% of their time indoors, put almost anything in their mouths, and are more sensitive than adults to many of the compounds found in dust. But they haven’t nailed down the extent of health risks from dust exposure nor which compounds and sources are of greatest concern. And many compounds remain unknown. “The few to a hundred compounds that we know are in dust don’t encompass the universe of chemicals in commerce, which number in the tens of thousands to over a million,” says P. Lee Ferguson, an environmental chemist at Duke University. To reveal the full spectrum of chemicals in dust, researchers are turning to high-powered analytical tools. Dust is no longer something to sweep under the rug. Scientists first realized that dust had a story to tell about environmental health in the 1940s when they measured human pathogens stuck to the dust in operating rooms to monitor cleanliness. In the 1970s, researchers began assessing house dust for lead from paint and gasoline as a way to determine the levels children might be exposed to. And in more recent studies, researchers have found carcinogenic compounds such as now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once used in electrical cables and wood floor finishes, and endocrine disruptors such as phthalates, which soften vinyl flooring and other plastics. Researchers are still building their understanding of the complex ways that volatile and semivolatile compounds interact in our surroundings, sorbing onto and desorbing from surfaces. They know that consumer products—vinyl flooring, personal care products, electronics, furniture, carpet pads, paints, cleaning products, and more—have a strong driving force to shed compounds into materials with lower concentrations of the substances. For example, a flame retardant might volatilize off the plastic parts of a TV set into the air, stick onto airborne particles, and move into dust, which settles on floors and carpets. The compounds will continue to migrate until they reach equilibrium with the surroundings, says Diamond. And heating the product, such as turning on a computer, also speeds migration into the home environment; a compound will condense in a cooler part of the room, where dust often resides. With people in the room, things get even more complicated. “Just like the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip character Pig-Pen, people walk around in a dust cloud all day,” says Heather M. Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University. People add to the dust’s organic load as their warm bodies volatilize deodorant or fragrance compounds from personal care products. “Our skin cells and clothing fibers may also accumulate chemicals from the air before they are then shed to dust, where they can accumulate yet more chemical,” Diamond says. Those compounds can be absorbed through skin, inhaled, or ingested when people put dusty hands to their mouths, complicating the scientist’s task of determining which exposure route is most important. Most research has focused on identifying individual classes of compounds in dust, like the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants found in furniture foam, carpet pads, and electronics; phthalates such as those found in vinyl flooring; or pesticides tracked in on shoes or evaporated off pet collars. Now, researchers are trying to get a more comprehensive view of the mixtures people are exposed to by probing the overall contaminant load in house dust. By combining toxicity tests with emerging methods for determining a complete profile of compounds in dust, researchers may be able to determine what chemicals or combinations of chemicals are most toxic, Stapleton says. In one new approach, scientists combed through two dozen dust studies of 45 compounds to create a snapshot of nationwide exposures, says Robin E. Dodson, an exposure scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. She and Veena Singla, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, ranked the substances according to the amount in dust and estimated intake and health hazard. The phthalate plasticizer di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, known as DEHP, topped the list. Phthalate plasticizers make plastic more pliable and are found in vinyl flooring, food containers, and cosmetics. DEHP can disrupt hormone function in human and animal studies and is linked to reduced sperm motility in men. Other compounds on the list include phenol preservatives found in deodorants and cosmetics; flame retardants; a fragrance compound known as Galaxolide, or HHCB; and perfluorinated stain repellents (Env. Sci. Technol. 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b02023). What all this means for health is a sticky question. For some compounds, such as PBDEs, researchers have shown that dust is a major source of human exposure to these potentially endocrine-disrupting chemicals. But for other compounds, dust’s contribution is less certain. So for now, researchers still don’t have a clear picture of house dust’s risk to health. Many of the contaminants identified so far in dust are associated with hormone disruption, cancer, and reproductive damage, according to human epidemiological and cell studies, but “for many of these compounds, governments have not set safe levels,” Singla says. After she and Dodson completed their study, she compared the amounts of contaminants in dust to soil-screening thresholds set by the Environmental Protection Agency that indicate a chemical might pose health risks and thus require further investigation. She found that the concentrations of some phthalates and flame retardants in house dust exceeded these standards. Todd P. Whitehead, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is part of the California Childhood Leukemia Study that aims to identify the risk factors for the disease, which has become more common since 1975. He and his team are sampling dust in California homes because his work shows that dust is a useful indicator of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), PBDEs, and PCBs, compounds that are suspected leukemia risk factors. “Compared to homes of healthy control children, the homes of children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia tended to have, on average, higher levels of PAHs, PBDEs, and PCBs in dust after adjusting for other relevant factors such as household income,” he says. “This is the strongest type of evidence to suggest that these compounds are risk factors for childhood leukemia,” Whitehead says. But researchers can’t say if the dust accounts for the increased leukemia risk, or if dust is correlated with the presence of something else in the home. And there are other sources of exposure to these compounds whose importance relative to dust is unknown. “We know that dust exposes us to these chemicals, but at the same time, if someone eats smoked salmon or a grilled burger, there are potentially carcinogenic PAHs on those items,” Stapleton says. Testing dust with this approach, Ferguson’s team found some of the usual suspects, such as flame retardants. “But we also saw compounds we don’t usually think of as organic contaminants in dust, such as nonylphenol ethoxylates,” he says. These are nonionic surfactants used in household cleaners—and suspected endocrine disruptors. Because most cleaning products get washed down the drain to sewage plants and discharged with treated effluent, scientists have been tracking surfactants in lakes and rivers but haven’t looked for them in dust, he says. Ferguson’s lab has shown that nonylphenol ethoxylates cause the proliferation of fat cells in a laboratory assay, hinting at a role in obesity. “These surfactants give the highest analytical signal compared to all the other components, such as flame retardants, that we measure in house dust using mass spectrometry,” he says. It’s beginning to do so already. In addition to Ferguson’s work, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan recently used nontargeted analysis to identify azo dyes as the largest class of brominated compounds in house dust. And Cynthia A. de Wit, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University, and her team can now identify groups of chlorinated paraffins in unknown mixtures with the strategy. This large class of compounds acts as flame retardants, plasticizers, and lubricants for metal parts, appearing in caulking for buildings and windows and even in handheld kitchen mixers. “There are thousands of isomers, and conventional mass spectrometry can’t separate them,” de Wit says.
News Article | February 2, 2017
As if excessive sodium and sugar content is not enough, a new study offers another reason why fast food is bad for your health. Scientists from Silent Spring Institute conducted a thorough evaluation of how pervasive fluorinated compounds are in fast food wrappers in the United States and which types of packaging have them. Unsurprisingly, at least one-third of fast food packaging samples tested positive. The chemicals in question are fluorinated compounds, otherwise known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). PFASs are a favorite material among manufacturers of non-stick cookware. These substances can also be found in furniture, outdoor gear, waterproof clothing, fire-retardant mattresses, and take-out food packaging. This is mainly because of their unique grease-, stain-, and water-repellent properties. PFASs don't occur in nature. Alarmingly, the particles of these highly synthetic chemicals, which are arguably one of the most widely used class of chemicals worldwide, do not biodegrade at all. This means that because PFASs are ubiquitous in the environment and in the products that people typically use on a regular basis, human exposure to this toxic chemical piles up, as proven by a 2015 study by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, where PFASs were detected in 97 percent of human blood samples. Lead study author, Laurel Schaider, and her team tested for PFASs in 407 samples of paper wrappers, paperboards, and beverage cups from 27 fast food companies in the United States. Half the test were done on wrappers with direct contact to food. The researchers found fluorinated compounds in 56 percent of dessert and bread wrappers, 38 percent of sandwich and burger wrappers, 20 percent of paperboards, with beverage containers trailing behind at 16 percent. The full study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters on Feb. 1. Earlier scientific works have suggested that PFASs can actually leach from the wrapper into the food that people eat. "These studies have found that the extent of migration depends on the temperature of the food, the type of food and how long the food is in contact with the paper. And it depends on which specific chemical," Schaider explained. PFAS exposure has been linked to serious health consequences, including kidney and testicular cancer, higher cholesterol levels, developmental toxicity, and immunotoxicity. In 2015, a top federal scientist gathered more than 200 signatures from fellow researchers to push manufacturers to stop the use of PFASs. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | September 14, 2016
Do you know what’s in your household dust? Chances are, an array of potentially harmful chemicals, according to new research published Wednesday. Researchers analyzed dozens of studies from coast to coast and found that the vast majority of dust samples contain the same types of chemicals, many of which come from household items. Among them: Flame retardants commonly found in furniture, highly fluorinated chemicals used in such items as non-stick cookware, and phthalates, which exist in everything from cosmetics to toys to food packaging and which some research on animals has suggested could affect the reproductive system and disrupt hormones. The findings suggest that each day, household dust exposes most Americans — particularly children, who face heightened risks because of their still-developing bodies — to chemicals that have been associated with potential health risks, especially when ingested over long periods of time. “The number and levels of toxic chemicals that are likely in every one of our living rooms was shocking to me,” Veena Singla, a co-author of the study and a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an announcement about the findings. Ami Zota, another co-author and a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, said researchers examined 26 peer-reviewed studies on chemicals in dust, including one unpublished data set, across 14 different states. They identified 45 chemicals from five chemical classes. In particular, they found 10 potentially harmful chemicals in 90 percent of all dust samples. The details of those are here: The dangers of many of these chemicals in humans, for the most part, remain poorly understood. In addition, it can be extremely difficult to associate specific health problems with a specific chemical exposure. And the researchers behind Wednesday’s dust study acknowledged the limitations they faced, including the fact that there is scant research on some of the chemicals they found. They also said that because the data came mostly from dust samples gathered on the East and West coasts, the findings might not be nationally representative. But part of the value of Wednesday’s study is in how it details that a person’s exposure to chemicals can come from a wide variety of sources — and that small amounts can add up over time. People understandably think of chemical exposures coming mainly through soil, water and the air we breathe. But the universe of exposure could be wider than that, and the implications can be especially critical for young children. “I don’t think we’ve really appreciated the exposure route of dust as much. It’s not often the first thing we think of,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California at San Francisco. She was not involved in Wednesday’s study but said it underscores that when it comes to household dust, “there’s an exposure occurring that’s not insignificant.” That, Woodruff said, should cause policymakers and regulators to take notice. While it might seem nearly impossible to avoid encountering dust, given that we spend much of our time indoors, researchers said there are simple steps people can take to limit their exposure. “Individual consumers do have some power to make healthier homes and to reduce individual exposures,” said Zota. Strategies include frequent handwashing, using a strong vacuum with a HEPA filter, and avoiding personal care and household products that contain potentially harmful chemicals. Earlier this year, the Silent Spring Institute, which contributed to Wednesday’s study, released a mobile app that helps individual consumers find ways to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals. Researchers find unsafe levels of industrial chemicals in drinking water of 6 million Americans In U.S. drinking water, many chemicals are regulated — but many aren’t The president just signed a law that affects nearly every product you use The superbug that doctors have been dreading just reached the U.S. For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow us on Twitter here.
News Article | September 14, 2016
Researchers have discovered that indoor dust contains a wide variety of chemicals that have been linked to health conditions such as infertility and cancer. When researchers from the George Washington University, University of California-San Francisco, Silent Spring Institute, Harvard University, and Natural Resources Defense Council carried out a comprehensive assessment of chemicals in consumer products, they were able to identify 45 chemicals across five chemical classes that typically find their way into indoor dust. In the U.S., people spend, on average, more than 90 percent of their time indoors, such as in homes and offices, which are typically full of dust. However, as the researchers have shown, dust is rarely just dirt. Indoor dust becomes a concern then because the chemicals it contains can be absorbed into the body when dust is breathed in or accidentally transferred into the mouth. By identifying specifically which chemicals are found in indoor dust, the researchers aim to give people an estimate of their potential exposure. Young children are the likeliest to be exposed to chemicals in indoor dust as they play on the floor, coming into contact with the dust when they crawl. Kids are also unlikely to wash their hands before putting them into their mouths, so they ingest indoor dust orally. Not to mention that children are also more vulnerable to the effects of chemical exposure because their bodies and brains are still undergoing development. For the study, the researchers compiled data from all published studies that analyzed chemical content in indoor dust since 2000. And while they found 45 chemicals commonly found in indoor dust, some chemicals are much more common than others. The top 10 chemicals found in indoor dust (PDF) are: DEHP, DEHA and HHCB were found in 100 percent of the samples analyzed by the study. The phthalates are found in vinyl floor and food packaging and have been shown to promote issues in the reproductive system. As a fragrance, HHCB, on the other hand, is common in scented products. However, it is unclear what health hazards it presents. "We think our homes are a safe haven but unfortunately they are being polluted by toxic chemicals from all our products," said Veena Singla, the study's co-author. • Limit the use of chemicals where you can control it, like in your home. Research safer alternatives to chemical products you usually use. • Make a habit of washing your hands, but avoid antibacterial and fragranced soaps. • Keep your home clean to keep indoor dust at bay, using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate filter or dusting with damp cloth. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | February 5, 2016
Comedian Lily Tomlin once asked, “Why is it when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic?” So I ask: Why is it when scientists talk to the public, they’re said to be communicating, but when the public talks to scientists, they are crazy to think scientists will listen? Traditional lessons on science communication address only one half of the possible exchange between scientists and the public. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, advises young scientists to develop their writing skills if they want to be effective science communicators. Alan Alda, the actor who also has a passion for explaining science suggests that scientists should practice story-telling and bring in strong feelings and emotions, channeling their inner ordinary person rather than their hyper-rational mindset as a scientist. Its excellent advice, but what about the crazy half? Scientists should also practice listening to the public. Communication is a two-way street, so why should scientists turn a deaf ear to the people they are communicating with? Case in point. The Flint Water Study, a citizen science project run by faculty and their students at Virginia Tech. Residents in Flint can follow a simple protocol to collect tap water in their home, ship it to Virginia Tech, and receive results about the water chemistry, including the concentration of lead, if present. This project began when Marc Edwards, an engineering professor, received a phone call from a concerned resident in Flint—and he didn’t turn a deaf ear. This wasn’t the first time he’d heard from people who noticed problems with their water. He knew from past experiences, including finding lead in water in Washington, DC, that when someone complains about their water, they are often noticing a real problem. This isn't what people usually mean when they talk about "science communication," but it should be. Edwards and his colleague Yanna Lambrinidou, along with their team at Virginia Tech, exemplify my highest aspirations for science communication because they listen to the public. When Lambrinidou and Edwards teach this form of science communication to their students, even they don’t call it science communication. It’s a course called Engineering Ethics and the Public. The heart of the course is a skill called transformational listening. According to Edwards and Lambrinidou, this should be considered an essential skill for engineers because conversations between professionals and the public can challenge stereotypes. When conversations expose power inequalities in the relationship, they can transform the relationship into trusted partnerships. Engineers are not the only STEM professionals who should listen carefully. For the same reasons that apply to them, listening should be considered essential for all of science. Listening is a way of collecting information to inform a research agenda. The public can be our partners. Some scientists already understand realize this already. For example, NASA’s Asteroid Initiative was informed by citizen input. The ECAST Network (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology), an organization founded by Arizona State University, the Museum of Science, Boston; the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, SciStarter, Science Cheerleader, and the Loka Institute mediates forums where the public and scientists can deliberate on issues of science. Museums and libraries, the most trusted sources of science communication, are ideal spots for such deliberations. The Boston Museum of Science hosted two of the NASA public input events about asteroids and previously hosted two ECAST deliberations to inform United Nations delegates: Word Wide Views on Global Warming in 2009 and World Wide Views on Biodiversity in 2012. These examples are not about listening to off-the-cuff remarks, but thoughtful public deliberations, frequently about contentious issues. In the European Union, Science Shops function to connect scientists with civil society organizations so that research agendas can be shaped by public interests. Public health faculty have a long tradition of community-engaged scholarship where they listen to people and shape research agendas in response. Steve Wing, at the School of Public Health at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has collaborated with North Carolina residents on many studies, most notably about air pollution from industrial hog operation that residents brought to his attention. And Julia Brody at the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts, carries out research looking for environmental causes of breast cancer. One community noticed that the predominance of cancer research focused on cures and wanted researchers to tackle the issue of causes and prevention. Brody listened and has crafted her research agenda in response to these public interests. Some geographers are listeners too. Muki Haklay, a geography professor at University College London, is co-founder of Mapping for Change, a citizen science and community mapping platform to help communities voice, and act on, their concerns. Most scientists pursue topics that are trending in the literature or are known priorities with funding agencies. When I asked Haklay how he decided what topics to study, he said, “I go into a neighborhood, sit in a cafe and have conversations with people.” With most citizen science projects, people gain a voice by collecting data –a language scientists, policy makers, and industry already understand. But giving the public a voice in the construction of scientific agendas is also a form of citizen science. Science communication scholars refer to this as "public engagement in science," but the skills for it have not yet been brought into the domain of science communication practice. Scientists can learn these skills. Journalists could facilitate these conversations; just as they translate research into words digestible by the public, so can they translate sentiments of the public for researchers to hear. In the mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation added Broader Impacts Criteria to its grant proposal process. A 2011 study by the National Science Board shows that scientists have struggled to interpret the idea of broader impacts ever since. To make their research have a broad impact, scientists most often assume they need to “disseminate” their findings. About half of scientists do minimal outreach. Most often, they visit classrooms to give presentations to school children. About half do nothing. They don’t think it is effective, and the way they do it most often is ineffective. Scientists tend to adopt a deficit model approach, rather than a dialogue or engagement model. The deficit perspective is the notion that the public has a knowledge gap and all scientists need to do is fill it by transmitting knowledge to people. Researchers in the field of science communication have repeatedly found that this is ineffective. Public engagement is necessary and that requires two-way communication. Blogging (as I’m doing right now), sharing results, and answering questions are only part of science communication. The revolutionary part is listening. Facilitated discussions like ECAST and Science Shops, as well as the new breed of STEM professionals like Edwards, Wing, Brody, and Haklay, exemplify how conversations allow research agendas (but not the results) to be shaped by public interests. As citizen science grows with a focus on people volunteering in service to science, let’s also have public engagement pave the way for science to function in service to people.