Chemical Entanglements: Gender and Exposure (CE) is a project of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW) that is an example of feminist innovation in Science and Technology Studies. CE is a multiyear collaboration involving scientists, artists, epidemiologists, oral historians, environmental justice activists, disability studies researchers, and scholars of intersectional gender & sexuality studies. 

All elements of this project are rooted in feminist care practices and disability activism as they inform the study of technology and science, and emphasize our Center’s devotion to a social justice mission.

Guiding Questions

ARTICULATION: What STS innovations (of theory, methodology, pedagogy, practice, engagement, …) are being articulated?

Chemical Entanglements articulates a mode of STS that seeks the knowledge of and does the work of caring for disabled bodyminds of individuals who have experienced hormonal disruption as a result of chemical exposure. We foreground the epistemological insights of people who experience Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT), Environmental Illness (EI) and other illnesses that emerged as the byproducts of technological, chemical innovation. Their knowledge regarding not only medicine and environmental health science but also the socioeconomic structures that devalue their lives and situated knowledge is itself an innovation and intervention.

NECESSITATION: What has necessitated this STS innovation? 

This innovation is necessary due to the inadequacy of traditional US clinical care in addressing chronic diseases, combinations of infections and environmental pollutant stresses on peoples’ health, nonacute presentations of diseases such as Lyme, and the expectation of a standard body that will recover when it receives the standard care. It is also necessitated by the impact of ableism on scholars of all disciplines, but STS in particular. The stigma of chemically-induced neurological and physical symptoms (such as brain fog) results in these scholars’ contributions being systematically devalued due to their inability to meet accepted standards of academic productivity.

FRAMEWORKS: What frameworks have been mobilized to articulate this STS innovation?

Existing frameworks include:

Nick Shapiro’s account of bodily reasoning and the chemical sublime, which surfaces how certain populations are already “pupil[s] of the air” (to borrow a phrase from Peter Sloterdijk).

  • Bodily reasoning “is the dynamic process through which knowledge of individual spaces of chronic exposure is somatically attained.” Instead of transcendental reason, bodily reasoning stirs “reflection, disquiet, and contestation” as it also “elevates minor enfeebling encounters into events that stir ethical consideration.”
  • Chemical sublime is “a somatic susceptibility and epistemic capacity common to human life—and often informed by non-human life.” Shapiro articulates this concept even as he also details how generalized somatic susceptibility intersects with “sensitized bodies” (for instance, an individual with MCS) “to identify the sources of domestic chemical exposure.”
  • These are “affective processes of attending to the minute aberrations of the body and atmosphere [as a] means of discerning protracted and low-level encounters with domestic chemicals.” 
  • These “irritations in one’s environment become agitations to apprehend” toxic infrastructures but this apprehension often meets and is bested by “industry’s mobilization of law, science and capital.” At the same time, histories of racialization and gender teach us to act as if unaffected, to modulate ourselves to deny toxic trespass, for to be (too) permeable to the environment is to be vulnerable and womanish.
  • See Shapiro, Nicholas. 2015. “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime.” Cultural Anthropology 3.3: 368-393.

Sami Schalk’s intersectional disability studies’ articulation of bodyminds, which stresses both how racialized historical violence is transgenerationally disabling and yet social justice critics must not only be attentive to this historical violence but also work against the ableism that characterizes nonnormative, disabled bodyminds as strictly pathological. Speculative fiction and narrative studies become resources to figure extraordinary bodyminds as valuable to the planet’s future.

Stacy Alaimo’s framework of transcorporeality in which she turns to narratives and photographic documentation of those with MCS (many of whom have relocated to mobile dwellings and locations outside of “modern” urban, rural, and suburban municipalities) so as to reduce their exposures to not only industrial pollution but to other people who have not yet been TILT-ed and who wear scented products.

  • Alaimo, Stacy.  2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self.  Indiana UP.

Michelle Murphy’s theorization of the gendered collectivizing processes that contributed to toxic hazards in office workplaces  “becoming perceptible” as sick building syndrome.

  • Murphy, M.  2005. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers.  Duke UP.

In addition, this project draws on the phenomenological, historical, and sensory studies literature on olfaction, smell, and odor.  Our hypothesis is that Olfaction is a scale of perceptibility of endocrine disruption that can be spoken (and is perceptible) in laywoman’s terms. In US social history, racialized, classed, and sexualized propriety is expressed/associated with being inodorant, qua having the smell of microbial metabolites masked by stronger perfumes/fragrances. These industrially-produced fragrances are often made up of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that cause harm and trigger symptoms of MCS, TILT, etc. 

INFRASTRUCTURES: What (social, institutional, political etc.) infrastructures have sustained this STS innovation?

Center for the Study of Women’s (CSW) collaborative and supportive research model has sustained this innovation. In fulfilling our commitment to advancing feminist research we have trained a cohort of undergraduate students who have made key contributions to this project. Feminism’s intersectional, boundary breaking and forward leading social justice orientation provides the infrastructure for advancing this work and thinking innovatively. 

EXAMPLES: What are notable examples of this STS innovation in action/practice?

Examples of this innovation in practice, all of which will be featured in our exhibit,  include:

  • CSW’s ongoing oral history project, which foregrounds the knowledge and lived experience of activists with MCS/TILT/EI
  • CSW’s survey project, which probes the connection between access to education and chemical exposure
  • CSW’s collaborations and dialogues with artists like Peggy Munson and Lise Melhorn-Boe, who use literary, visual, and tactile methods for articulating health knowledge
  • CSW’s digital timelines, which document the histories of detergent and other consumer goods and outline the gendered and racialized history of hygiene through an engagement with archival sources

INTERRUPTION: How does this innovation interrupt habitual modes of doing STS?

Is study (as in science and technology STUDIES) incompatible with carework?  This project disrupts (but also participates in) the gendered divide that generates prestige for those (masculinized) scholars who study, presumedly with objective disinterest, those who are (feminized by being) environmentally impressible/sensitized.  Performed in this divide is the making of unaffected, armored bodies--qua objective MINDS--divorced from sentiment, care, and (agitated, intoxicated) feeling. By soliciting oral histories of those with EI and treating the results as recordings of DIY scientists with valuable knowledge, our research practice reconstrues careful listening  not only as a research method important to data gathering but also as a mechanism of caring for and becoming reciprocally entangled with affected and affecting bodyminds. (See the work of Ai-jen Poo, Kyla Schuller’s Biopolitics of Feeling, Cora Kaplan’s Erotics of Talk)

REGENERATION: How does this innovation regenerate STS?  CONTEXTS: What geographic and temporal contexts characterize this STS innovation?

This project regenerates or returns to Michelle Murphy’s work on sick buildings and environmental exposures, for instance, her research into ventilation standards developed via tests on Harvard male undergraduates (presumed the normative body). While Murphy elegantly argues that those claiming to be harmed by sick buildings managed, by way of activism and collectivism tied to “tight” occupational sites and pink collar work, to make “perceptible” a molecular agency that had not been materialized prior to this activism, the STS project that we are investigating is concerned with a moment in which the science on ‘sex hormones,’ and endocrine disruption from unintended chemical trespass is in agreement AND YET that science can’t break through to widespread awareness, or breaks through only selectively. We are in a moment when scientists, themselves, are confounded by the facility by which industry (the assemblage of industry, governmentality, and capital) silences them through gaslighting. We are in a moment too of neoliberal risk devolvement and erosion of the welfare state

ENGAGEMENT: How does this innovation demonstrate STS engagement or collaboration or outreach?

This project involves individuals with MCS/TILT/EI as collaborators and responds to the tremendous hunger on the part of these women to be taken seriously by an institution like UCLA (a R1 research institute), and to have their knowledge honored and recognized through inclusion in an archive.

Gender Differences in Attitudes Towards Becoming Fragrance-Free

In 2018, CSW researchers surveyed 700+ UCLA undergraduates to understand how fragranced products impact educational outcomes and how gender can influence attitudes and behavior regarding fragrance use. We aimed to assess how EDC exposure presented a potential barrier to students with MCS or aversions to fragrances.

Feminist Pedagogy and Care Work

Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Group

CSW has made feminist pedagogy a cornerstone of the Chemical Entanglements project. Student projects, which will be featured in our 4S exhibit, include archival, digital timelines, blog posts, and a major oral history initiative.

These projects have been spearheaded in some cases by students with chemical injury themselves, demonstrating the innovative knowledge that those students alone can bring to this field of STS Research.

The cover of "Accessible Spaces: A Fragrance Free Toolkit"

Accessible Spaces: A Fragrance Free Toolkit

Accessible Spaces: A Fragrance Free Toolkit was developed by Center for the Study of Women researchers in order to better serve students with environmental illness. The accessibility policies within are designed to create more equitable access to education by listening to and caring for disabled students.

Artistic responses to chemical exposure

Allergist/immunologist Claudia Miller has proposed that, once individuals reach a threshold of total “body burden,” they are susceptible to TILT (Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance) thereby reacting to small amounts of previously tolerated chemicals.  Diagnosis of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) for TILT-ed individuals is more common among white populations, suggesting a disparity in treatment among minorities. The educational and activist aims of these postcards, commissioned by the Chemical Entanglements Project at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, includes acknowledging people of color who have been at the forefront of environmental justice efforts. All three images created by disability artist Peggy Munson (who herself has MCS) feature individuals with masks over the faces. One card features an Asian woman resting at an abandoned gas station repurposed as a beauty salon, to draw the connection between toxic ingredients in many salon products and their petroleum rootstocks.  Another image shows an African American woman and her dog as they debark from a camper with a label “SAFE” scrawled on its rear. This card acknowledges the difficulty for those with MCS to find safe housing because of off-gassing chemicals in building materials. The third postcard presents a woman wearing a respirator, her arms around an African American gender non-binary individual--an image of mutual alliance and support. Each postcard has a set of check-boxes that evoke the medical questionnaires given to patients. Here, the sender of the postcard would put an “x” in a box linked to phrases such as “My symptoms grow urgent around scented detergent,” and “Modern people have the vapors from chemical capers” that serve as messages warning that access for those with MCS runs inversely to the distribution of accessory fragrances by chemical manufacturers.

The early works of Canadian artist Lise Melhorn-Boe inquired into the thwarted, deferred, and transferred artistic desires of women.  In Color Me Dutiful (1986), Melhorn-Boe collected stories elicited from women as to why they wear make-up, printing those desires and recollections on oval paper leaflets (i.e., faces) collected in a receptacle whose cover is a plaster cast of her own mienne.  After becoming ill with breast cancer and, then, felled by exposure to mold, Melhorn-Boe returned to the oval leaflets with a new awareness of environmental toxins that had likely contributed to her own health. Toxic Face Book (2008) returns to the landscape of the face and lists the chemical ingredients of the many emollients and hues that women use regularly.  The artist’s life history of exposures to heavy metals are also rendered via a pop-up book, No Safe Levels (2006), figuring a topography of rolling hills and peaks, the overall shape based on her body’s profile while lying sideways and inscribed with the heavy metals that turned up in her laboratory panel.  In What’s for Dinner (2011), a textual homage and spin on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party,  she prompts the picnic goer to unfold a series of meals that list the contaminants in food that contribute to total body burden. The large (40 inch) fold-out work, Body Map (2009), features a photograph of the artist’s post-mastectomy figure, with a personal and public environmental history inscribed across various body parts.