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Study Examines Women's Household Exposure Experiences

By Dixie-Ann Sawin
January 2009

Altman served as a graduate student research assistant
Working on her Ph.D., which she completed in 2008, Altman served as a graduate student research assistant on a grant held by Silent Spring Institute with collaborators Phil Brown, Ph.D., of Brown University and Rachel Morello-Frosch, Ph.D., of the University of California Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gasior Altman)

Silent Spring technicians are shown conducting
Silent Spring technicians are shown conducting the kind of biomonitoring that produced data from Cape Cod homes. (Photo courtesy of Silent Spring)

A new report, funded in part by an NIEHS Environmental Justice grant, indicates that women are increasingly concerned with the chemicals in their household environment - and that learning about their own "exposure experiences" can help to shape understanding of the common sources of chemical exposures. The study, led by sociologist Rebecca Gasior Altman, Ph.D., used a novel approach that communicated data produced by biomonitoring body fluids and testing household air and dust.

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.

Through thirty in-depth interviews, the researchers conducted a qualitative assessment of 25 women's responses to personal exposure information, as part of a collaborative effort to uncover links between environmental exposures and breast cancer. The subjects had all participated in and responded to the earlier multi-component Household Exposure Study (HES) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14594359?ordinalpos=14&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum) Exit NIEHS, which characterized common chemical exposures in everyday indoor environments and was among the first such studies to report both community- and individual-level exposure data to enrollees.

Carried out by co-authors Ruthann Rudel and Julia Brody Ph.D., of the Silent Spring Institute, the HES sampled 120 homes for 89 environmental chemicals in Cape Cod, Mass. The chemicals selected for the study were ones previously linked to endocrine disruption and included alkylphenols, parabens, phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), flame retardants, pesticides and phenols.

The interview protocol for this follow-up study involved 55 semi-structured questions about participants' interpretation and impressions of the results and their associated responses to the information. The protocol allowed researchers to ask follow up questions when necessary to probe further the women's responses.

"Our interviews indicate that study participants wanted their results and appreciated the opportunity to receive them," Altman and colleagues observed. They concluded, "our findings raise the importance of reporting even uncertain science and underscore the value of a community-based reporting strategy."

Although some scientists and government officials worry such information will provoke fears, Altman explained, the interdisciplinary team discovered instead that people who learned about chemicals in their homes and bodies were eager for more, not less, information about how typical household products can expose them to chemicals that may affect health.

According to the authors, the study represents one of the first detailed accounts of its kind and offers insights into the ways future exposure studies should report results to participants. It is also a response to a call by the National Research Council in its 2006 report, Human Biomonitoring for Environmental Chemicals (http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11700) Exit NIEHS, for more research on how participants react to results from surveillance and personal exposure studies in the context of their unique social and historical settings.

This effort by researchers at Brown University, the University of California Berkeley and the Silent Spring Institute appeared in the December issue of the American Sociological Association's Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

To extend this work and investigate the experience of study participants from different historical, environmental and social contexts, the research team is repeating both the household sampling and qualitative interviews in a California community of predominantly low-income Latino and African American residents.

Citation: Altman RG, Morello-Frosch R, Brody JG, Rudel R, Brown P, Averick M. 2008. Pollution Comes Home and Gets Personal: Women's Experience of Household Chemical Exposure. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 49(4): 417-435.

(Dixie-Ann Sawin, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral research fellow in the Laboratory of Neurobiology Neurotoxicology Group.)

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