Toxics in our Living Rooms
The comfortable chair that I just bought and sit in for hours each day is giving me a sore throat and making my eyes sting. I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve been experimenting for about a month now, and I can say for certain that after about a half hour of sitting in it – reading, doing my emails, or whatever – my throat starts to feel raw and I need to blink my eyes more. If I get up and move away from the chair, the symptoms dissipate until I go back there, and it starts again. I would just return the chair to the store, but there’s a no return policy. And if it’s actually emitting some sort of harmful chemical or fibers, I don’t want to give it away to an unsuspecting person who, like me, just wants to relax without side effects.
That this is happening now, as I’m working on an upcoming symposium on environmental justice, is purely coincidental. But my research on pollutants in the environment has got me thinking about all the chemicals our bodies confront on a daily basis, as we unsuspectingly go about our routines. We wash our hair, brush our teeth, put detergent in the washing machine, drink from plastic bottles, and yes, sit on fabrics treated with chemicals that render them anti inflammable, stain resistant, and wrinkle free. Most of the time we bear these chemicals without even realizing it. Nothing hurts us, and so we think we’re safe. This comfy chair is telling me loud and clear: “There is something not right here; what more evidence do you need?”
The symposium that I’m planning, along with Disability Studies scholar, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, is called “The Problem of Intersex Frogs: Feminism, Disability, and Environmental Justice.” The central issue is this: we have evidence that chemicals in the environment are having an impact on the reproductive systems of frogs and fish. How does this line of research, and the negative language of “abnormality” that goes along with discussions of “strange” and “deviant” frogs, affect discussions of reproductive anomalies in human beings? Are intersex variations “normal” differences, as I and others have been arguing in an effort to reduce the pathologizing of intersex conditions and specifically to ban unnecessary genital surgeries? Or are they caused by toxic chemicals in the environment that threaten humans’ reproductive anatomy just as they do amphibians’? And does asking this question, which necessarily conflates frogs with humans, contribute to a “sex panic,” whereby any bodies or behavior that fall beyond what we consider “normal” are used in ways that not only direct attention to environmental toxins but also undermine the efforts of disability activists to achieve equality?
There is no doubt that intersex frogs grab people’s attention, but perhaps the real notice needs to be toward the comfy chairs that we all sit in. And not just the chairs, but deodorant, water bottles, mascara, carpets, and the like. Perhaps most people won’t develop chemical sensitivities like what I’m experiencing with this chair, but the damage caused by chemical exposure can be insidious; the rise of cancers, allergies, learning disabilities, and infertility is staggering, but it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint exactly what kind of exposure is causing these medical troubles.
Activists have noted that the Toxic Substances Control Act, originally passed in 1976 in an effort to regulate chemicals used in everyday products, is no longer sufficient, and that it has become easy for chemical companies to work around. Most new chemicals (and manufacturers have introduced 80,000 new ones since 1976) have not been tested for their negative effects on the environment and human health. Rather than showing that chemicals are safe before they get approved, the law works in such a way that the government has to prove harm in order to eliminate a dangerous chemical. Innocent until proven guilty should not be the strategy when the proof is so hard to assess.
I’m not positive which chemical, whether it’s the flame retardant or the spot repellant or the wrinkle resistant or some other one in my chair, that is causing my sore throat and stinging eyes. But it’s enough for me to get rid of the chair, and I would hope it would be enough for retailers to stop selling these chairs, or better yet for manufacturers to change their ways in producing them. (Some retailers have stopped selling furniture made with flame retardants, but interestingly, not the place where I bought this chair.) People should be able to go about their lives safely, without burning throats … and worse.
Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.