A Clean Start and the Scent of Clean

Originally published in the Yale Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program magazine, spring 2017, Volume 7, Issue 2

My mama passed on three years ago.  After tearful journey from California to Alabama, I opened the yellow door with emotional trepidation.  The familiar smell of home washed over me.  Relieved, I thought to myself, “thank goodness, the house still smells like Mama.”  Then, an instant later, I realized with horror that the house actually smelled of pine sol.  My last olfactory memory of my mama was a cleaning chemical.

That’s when I began thinking about how the seemingly dry “objective” field of risk regulation is deeply laden with emotions, values, and social complexities. It is my hunch that until we begin to rethink the hazards of chemicals in everyday lives in our homes and on our bodies, policy makers will do little to address the even greater environmental injustices faced by indigenous peoples.

To that end, I have just won a Mellon New Directions Fellowship for a year of courses in toxicology and environmental epidemiology.  Taking organic chemistry may not be the most relaxing sabbatical, but seems necessary for self defense in our chemical-saturated world.  Over the 20th century, corporations have released 85,000 new chemical concoctions into the environment.  Less than 5% have been tested for basic toxicity.

Before breakfast, the average U.S. woman exposes herself to 168 synthetic chemicals with known health impacts.  For decades, Johnson’s sold its signature baby shampoo with formaldehyde as an ingredient.  Long after the EU banned this known carcinogen from the shampoo, the U.S. formulation continued to contain it until consumer advocacy groups demanded a safer substitution.

I used Johnson’s shampoo for the better part of a decade, as did my mother.  We were both diagnosed with different lymphomas within four years.  Were they genetically linked?  Maybe… Or was it because we shared a toxic shampoo and other chemical exposures in the home?

Humanity faces an epidemic of cancer (in the U.S., 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed in their lifetimes).  Asthma rates have doubled since 1980 to 1 in 11.  One is 10 girls reaches early puberty.  Sperm counts are down by half since World War II.  We have rising rates of anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorders, infertility, migraines, headaches, fibromyalgia, obesity, and irritable bowel syndrome.  Many of these environmentally-induced illesses are disproportionately feminized as the new “wandering womb” diagnoses of the twenty-first century.  Blame the women; ignore the obvious hazards.

To be sure, my awareness of synthetic chemicals, especially fragrances is magnified perhaps a thousand-fold compared with others.  Chemotherapy and chemical injury from sick buildings at two universities (the second remediated, the first not) left me with severe multiple chemical sensitivities.  Every day when I bring my little daughter home from school, I must ask her to change her clothes because to my nose, the fabric has absorbed particles wafted onto her from other students’ fabric softeners and laundry detergents.  Below the “floral” notes, undisclosed petrochemical ingredients reek like a barrel of oil to my altered senses.

According to peer reviewed studied by Dr. Anne Steinemann and others, synthetic fragrances irritate 15-20% of the population.  I’m the canary at the far end of that spectrum.  Living in the modern world has become very difficult, and I have struggled as an academic with travel and even my very means of production—even books must be sunned and off-gassed to remove the stench of ink.

Women’s studies trained me to denaturalize gender norms imposed from birth and to see how patriarchy is embedded in our very language and sense of identity.  So too are environmental hazards.  Following body burden studies here in the U.S., British scientists revealed in 2005 that some two hundred plus synthetic chemicals lurk in the umbilical cords of European newborns. Public shock at the “pre-pollution” of babies led the European Parliament to overhaul its risk assessment and registration processes in 2006, but the U.S. has not followed suit.  While the EU has now banned 1,100 chemicals in cosmetic products, the FDA limits only ten.

As a mother, I’ve never trained my little daughter to perceive chemicals as clean.  She’s never seen a Febreze commercial.  She’s never watched a baby bounce on Downey-soft towels.  On the first day of kindergarten, we entered the schoolyard and she pulled me backwards and buried her head in my thigh.  “Mama, I want to go home.  It stinks here,” she whispered, “it smells toxical [sic].”  My child reacted with a proper sense of hazard, but many children have normalized these synthetic scents.  After all, they’ve been breathing synthetic fragrances 24/7 from sheets, onesies, blankets, and a hug from their perfumed mothers. How would they ever know how their brains might function in the absence of the neurotoxins the fragrance industry purposefully puts in these products to deaden a person’s normal sense of smell?

Protecting my child from chemicals is exhausting triple shift work.  The de-regulated neoliberal state has outsourced environmental protection onto parents.  I waste untold hours scrutinizing labels.  As reproductive biologist and toxics writer, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, quips to reporters who perennially ask advice about what alternative or “green” products to buy, “I am not interested in asking all mothers, including my friends and myself, to become our own regulatory agencies … I can’t always be a chemical engineer every time I shop in the grocery store, especially if one kid is hungry and the other needs a nap.  I am interested in re-creating our chemical policy. . . so toxicity is no longer a choice.”

Long ago, Yale Women’s Studies allowed me to pursue an unusual, interdisciplinary track on women, development and environment.  In my professional and civic life, I am thrilled to be returning to my core feminist values.

The personal is political.  The personal is environmental, too.

I was born in a trailer park in Montgomery, Alabama.  My little lungs inhaled formaldehyde from the indoor air on the first day I came home from the hospital.

Entire Native American communities live in trailers.

After hastily constructed trailers sickened hundreds of families on the Gulf Coast relocated after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA recalled them.  According to CDC tests, some had up to 40 times the recommended levels of formaldehyde.  Yet, FEMA continued to auction off the toxic trailers.  Although the GSA placed sticker labels on them that they were not intended for human habitation, many made their way to Native American reservations where housing conditions are desperate.

By day, I teach about the horrors of genocide of indigenous people; by night I read about toxics.  I have felt torn for years about the three great passions of my life—women’s studies, anthropology and cultural survival, and environmental justice—but the Mellon Foundation has given the space and training in which to bring them together.



Canary, anthropologist, professor, survivor, mother, activist.

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