The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast

Episode 18: Toxicology & Communities of Resistance. A Conversation with Melina Packer, Ph.D.

January 16, 2023 Episode 18
The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast
Episode 18: Toxicology & Communities of Resistance. A Conversation with Melina Packer, Ph.D.
The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast
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Thank you for listening to The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast!


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Please support our work to help us continue creating greater awareness about MCS. Thank you very much!


In Episode 18, “Toxicology & Communities of Resistance," I’m speaking with Melina Packer, Ph.D. 


Melina is a postdoctoral research associate in the Feminist Lenses for Animal Interaction Research (FLAIR) Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is currently writing a queer feminist history of toxicology in the U.S., in which she argues that racial, gendered, and economic hierarchies are embedded into the science itself. These inherent biases, in turn, help explain how and why marginalized peoples remain disproportionately more exposed to toxic environmental chemicals.

In our conversation, Melina explores:

  • How  society became inundated with synthetic chemicals or toxicants.

  • How women, especially women of color, factory- and farm-workers, LGBTQ+ people, and members of other socially marginalized groups, are often over-burdened by toxic exposures.

  • What endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are and how they challenge core tenets of toxicology.

  • How over-exposed communities are pushing back against the chemical industry.

Melina Packer’s website

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Aaron Goodman  00:05 

Welcome to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. It's a podcast that amplifies the voices of people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS, also known as Environmental Illness, Chemical Intolerance, and Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance or TILT. The podcast also highlights emerging research about the illness.

I'm Aaron Goodman, host and founder of podcast. This is Episode 18, the first of 2023 and we're calling this episode “Toxicology and Communities of Resistance.” I'm speaking with Melina packer, PhD. Melina is a postdoctoral research associate in the Feminist Lenses for Animal Interaction Research, also known as FLAIR Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the United States. Melina is currently writing a queer feminist history of toxicology in the US, in which she argues that racial, gendered and economic hierarchies are embedded into the science itself. And these inherent biases help explain how and why marginalised peoples remain disproportionately more exposed to toxic environmental chemicals. 

In our conversation, Melina explores how societies became inundated with synthetic chemicals or toxicants. How women, especially women of colour, factory and farm workers, LGBTQ plus people, and members of other socially marginalised groups, are often overburdened by toxic exposures. Melina talks about what endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs are and how they challenge core tenants of toxicology, and also how overexposed communities are pushing back against the chemical industry. 

I hope you enjoy the conversation and find it a benefit. We release new episodes twice a month, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. leave a review on Apple podcasts. It's a great way to help others learn about the podcast. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Just search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or PodcastingMCS. Leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast and please share the podcast with others. Get in touch with me and our team anytime. Just email info@chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org We love hearing from you. The podcast is also available on YouTube. And you can read closed captions in any language like good support the podcast and help us continue creating greater awareness about MCS, please find a link in the episode descriptions at chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org Thanks so much for your support and for listening. 

 

Aaron Goodman  03:05

Thank you so much for joining me on the chemical sensitivity podcast.


Melina Packer  03:07

Thank you for having me. 

 

Aaron Goodman  03:09

Woud you like to perhaps just remind folks where you're coming from what your major interests are the field you work in, and what you do is work.

 

Melina Packer  03:18

I did my PhD in society and environment at the University of California Berkeley. And I'm interested in I do what's called science studies, or rather critical feminist science studies. And so I look at the politics of science, a lot of folks readily understand that there's a lot of politics around scientific disciplines. But my field looks at how science itself is political. Because it's a product of society and culture and history, scientists are not immune to all those influences of, you know, the water we're all swimming in. So that's the work that I do. And I've my dissertation focused on the politics of toxicology, which is the science of poisons, as they call it.

 

Aaron Goodman  04:05

Maybe you could say a little bit more, what does toxicology really mean? 

 

Melina Packer  04:12

It’s certainly true that people who are marginalised by dominant society are either excluded from being scientists themselves are dismissed in medical establishments, when they come to physicians with concerns. All of that is true. But my work is looking more at the sort of contributions and theoretical frameworks that Black Studies, Black feminism in particular, and queer theory couldn't open up. 

So in other words, both Black feminist and queer theory you know, in the sort of the ways that they become academic disciplines started on the ground right started on the streets in, you know, now in the 2000s. These are somewhat established academic departments, but the origins of those fields are very much activist. And so those perspectives, look at things like science with a different viewpoint. And so it's not just that individuals who might identify as black or as feminist or as LGBTQ, or as someone living with disabilities like, right, we can go down the whole list of folks who are marginalised in the current society. It's not only that those individuals have those experiences, but that there's a way there are different ways of knowing and understanding the world. 

And toxicology is a product of the dominant way of knowing and understanding the world, which is a product of enlightenment science, of the European culture, Euro-American culture, industrial capitalism, right? Like these are all the sort of social forces that toxicology comes out of. And so in addition to individuals being marginalised by that worldview, it's also a worldview that kind of silences other ways of looking at the world.

 

Aaron Goodman  06:17

Would you be willing to situate yourself how do you fit into this paradigm?

 

Melina Packer  06:23

I am a, you know, uninvited guest on unceded indigenous territory that we now call the United States. My father's side were immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jewish. My mother's side are immigrants from Ireland, Irish Protestant, and I'm queer. I was raised kind of on the not quite working class, but not quite middle class, I sort of my upbringing, when I was very young, my parents had some money, and then that money very suddenly disappeared. So I sort of straddle two worlds of sort of being example, but struggling financially. So I've always felt like a bit of an outsider in these institutions of higher education. But my, I've have had the privilege of, you know, receiving a particular education and these advanced degrees and what I learned what I'm so grateful for, in that, in those programmes was learning about all these contributions from critical thinkers, including black feminists, queer theorists and activist disability scholars and activists, etc.

 

Aaron Goodman  07:38

Are you interested in the effects of everyday chemicals?

 

Melina Packer  07:43

Yeah, so what led me to this project, my current project, I'm writing a book about United States based toxicology practices, was actually through food, I sort of started out studying food justice. And that's what led me to pesticides, because of course, farmworkers who in this country tend to be racially marginalised. Economically marginalised, sometimes they're undocumented, etc, very disenfranchised, politically, right? For the most part. And they're, of course, disproportionately more exposed to toxic chemicals in the form of pesticides and herbicides. So that's what sort of led me in this direction of toxicants. 

I never expected to be doing a project on toxicology. But there's a lot of incredible important work on environmental injustices when it comes to farmworkers in particular. And I just personally didn't feel like that was the work for me to do. I didn't have a connection with farmworkers. I don't speak Spanish, for example, which is often the not necessarily their first language because there are also many indigenous folks from Mexico that are not descendants of the Spanish colonisers. In other words, they Spanish isn't necessarily their first language either. But that's often the language that's used in my setting in California. So I didn't feel like that was my role. 

So instead, I did what anthropologists Lauren Nader calls studying up. So I looked at the scientists, I looked at the science like how is it possible that we are living in a world where all of us everyday are flooded with toxic exposures? And those who are socially marginalised bear even greater toxic body burdens? Like what are the conditions that produce this moment? Why are these toxicants still legal? Why? Why are they rationalised? Like how have we made this very inequitable situation, quote unquote normal?

Aaron Goodman  09:42

Other people who are listening, myself included, ask this question all the time. You know, how is it that we are flooded in our workplaces, in our homes in our schools, even outdoors by toxic chemicals? How is this allowed to tend to be and why does it seem to be getting so much worse? And why do so many people seem to be getting ill, and you write about a range of so-called contested illnesses? And we know that chemical sensitivity is one of those? Do you also write about MECFS? Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme disease and others? How do you view the connection between the barrage of chemicals that we all live with? And these so-called contested illnesses? Do you see a connection there?

 

Melina Packer  10:31

Definitely. So I don't write about those particular contested illnesses that you listed I my work focused on endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which are synthetic. I mean, they can also be naturally occurring. But I've focused on those synthetic chemicals that interfere with hormones, hormone signalling, which causes a whole cascade of problems. Because hormones are integral to our body's metabolism to organ development, cardiac function, everything right? 

Part of what my research revealed, in terms of the question of how did we get here, right, is that around the mid 20th century, particularly around the world wars, there was a tremendous upsurge in synthetic chemical production. And in many cases, prompted by the wars, right, there was this effort to create chemical weaponry. And then after the wars, you know, you've now got this really powerful chemical industry that was always already sort of tied up with military industry, right, and the Department of Defense. 

And I'm speaking very generally, but also mostly about the US context, because that's where my research focuses. So you've got this chemical industry that's very much embedded with the military industrial complex mean, the first toxicologists were funded by the US Department of Defence, the big chemical companies were contracted out by the US government to develop these substances, etc. So after the World Wars, they have the sort of surplus of toxic chemicals that they were like, how can we make money on these things, and that's when it transformed into plastics, synthetic pesticides, and herbicides, household cleaning products, you know, stuff goes in ours, quote, unquote, personal care products, like body lotions, and shampoos, etc, right? 

So it was very much a sort of a money-making thing is very much a product of capitalism, right? These corporations needed to continue to make money off these products, they had invested time and energy and resources into. And so even if we go back to like the turn of the century, you know, those were some of the earliest synthetic chemicals. And there was always kind of a pushback from society, from regular folks from who we would make today call environmental activists or public health advocates, right? There was always a sort of push to be like, hey, wait a minute, we don't really know how these toxins or toxic ins work. 

So there was like the pure food, Food and Drug Act, I think it was 1908 or something like that early 1900s. But that industry basically always kind of was able to overpower those more kind of consumer advocate grassroots kind of movements or even early public health pushback. I mean, that's just, it's an unfortunate fact of the United States history that industry has always had this outsized influence on policy. 

So that's, you know, the chemical industry is no exception. And particularly after the World Wars, they were just that much more powerful and influential. Some of the slogans were things like Better Living Through Chemistry are serving industry, which serves mankind. I mean, these companies really thought they were making life better, right, like plastic was, you know, a boon for housewives and workers and physicians, right. So it wasn't like, you know, pure evil, they really thought they were producing products that would make life more pleasurable and more efficient and easier. But they didn't wait to test any of these substances. They just release the substances. And then after the fact, after they're already out in the environment, and people start to experience health problems, it's too late, right? It's already out there. 

So my work sort of reveals, like how that sequence of events happens. And other folks have written on the history of toxicology in particular, but I take an explicitly feminist approach, where it's basically like, you know, these were highly privileged, white men who are pretty arrogant, felt like they knew everything, and believed in capitalism and had clear political allegiances to the US military industrial complex, and they were like, we can make these things safe. 

We can come up with a system that defines these substances as safe because it's good for progress. It's good for capitalism. It's good for US dominance. And that of course, that's like a major oversimplification. And I don't mean to suggest that toxicology is complete. Lee made up mumbo jumbo, but there was toxicology. And any toxicologist will say this, I will admit this right toxicology, as one of my interviewees put it is like forecasting the weather. It's so uncertain, it has to be there's no way we can actually test what these toxic things are going to do. Because we can't, you know, we're not supposed to experiment on humans, although that, arguably, one could say that's happening. So we're experimenting on animals. And then extrapolating, it's usually rodents, right? It's usually rats and mice, we're extrapolating from how the toxin affects a rodent, to then say how it might affect a human. They also do this, there's a common practice in toxicology, although this has changed in more recent years. 

But initially, they would expose experimental animals to very high doses of a given toxicant. And then mathematically calculate a lower dose that humans would be safely exposed to like they had this very sort of linear, mathematical modelling. And toxic ins just don't work that way. They're interacting with other toxins in the environment, they're interacting with different individual bodies differently. You know, the scientists didn't actually know how these toxic cans worked. But they had the arrogance, to say, the risks were worth the benefits to them. Right?

 

Aaron Goodman  16:35

You talk about the evolution, the free reign, unregulated environment in which many chemical products were developed, marketed, sold, bought, what's the system like now in the US, and as the situation gotten better, or a situation gotten worse in terms of the amount of chemicals that were exposed to the potential hazards, the lack of regulation, et cetera?

 

Melina Packer  17:05

That's a great question. I would say, the science has definitely advanced. And the scientists themselves are definitely less cavalier. On the whole, I would say, of course, I didn't interview every toxicologist in the country. But overall, the sense I get from, you know, dominant textbooks and scientific publications reviews, the sort of general sense is that not only are toxicologists now able to track sort of much more subtle effects, much more kind of, it used to be there was this expression in toxicology, kill them and count them. So it was this very crude, just kind of how much of a toxin kills how many rats, and then they would sort of work backwards from that number to come up with a safe dose for humans. It's much more nuanced. Now. They're not just looking at deaths as an outcome. They're looking at more subtle effects, more long-term effects, multigenerational effects, etc. 

They didn't used to do all that. So that's a huge improvement. In terms of the regulatory environment. I mean, like I said, it's always been, you know, another interviewee of mine put it really well. She said, “we're playing the industry's game of catch up.” It's always been sort of after the fact, the toxins are already out there, because of the way the regulation is set up in the US. And so that's no different. 

There's so many different pieces of federal legislation that regulate toxic chemicals, toxic substances and Control Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. There's something for consumer products food. So it's like different agencies, Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Agriculture, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. You know, there's the Environmental Protection Agency, right? There's all these different agencies, there's different sort of landmark acts, but they're all kind of dealing with a problem that's already out there that we don't have a sort of precautionary approach here in the US, where you would wait to see, you would test a chemical before deciding whether you could market it in the US, the chemicals marketed, it's disseminated. And then after the fact, you're doing studies on it, and in fact, in the case, the US, the regulators depend on the companies to do the studies on each chemical. 

So clearly, you have a system that's set up to advantage the manufacturers because they're the ones that are charged with coming up for the evidence of whether a chemical is safe or not. But part of what my work argues is that even if we had a precautionary system in the US, even if we did test chemicals before releasing them into circulation, there there is no process for fully and comprehensively testing a toxicant to assess whether or not it's safe because we can't test on people. So it's it's sort of impossible. All there are you know, I don't know much about it. But there are folks who work on what was called green chemistry, which is supposed to that it's a real effort to come up with synthetic chemicals that are, you know, more green that aren't as harmful either to the environment or to animals, etc.

But the powers that be have created a situation where these toxicants are now unavoidable, ubiquitous, some of them never biodegrade, you know, toxins that were banned decades ago are still found in all of our blood, like DDT and things like that. So I don't know that they're, you know, even the best case scenario where we had a really strong regulatory system, like we still have this kind of mess to clean up. So I don't mean to sound so pessimistic. I think absolutely. Chemical corporations need to be better regulated, I think we, the US should adopt more of a precautionary approach. But that we still have to deal with the toxic cans that have already been released and are actively harming environments and ecologies. And individuals,

 

Aaron Goodman  21:07

I want to turn to a really fascinating part of your research, and you write about citizen science, what is citizen science? And do you feel that there's a role for folks who have chronic illness to be involved?

 

Melina Packer  21:21

Yeah, these are great questions. And also, I'm so glad you asked me this, too, because it brings up another element that I think is important in terms of the kind of narrow view of toxicology, especially initially, when it was first developed as a scientific discipline is that they not only are they assuming that chemicals were concerned in linear ways, but also assuming that chemicals will have the same effect on every individual. So the sort of default, imagined human subject is a healthy adult. Male, and I think we can throw white in there too. You know, because that, because that healthy adult white male is, has become the sort of, maybe not has become but it's so often assumed to be the universal norm. You know, if you look at medical textbooks, right, the illustrations, it's always like a white body, right. And others have written on this extensively, especially how Biomedicine has assumed this kind of universal, healthy adult white male. 

So that was kind of the default, imagined, test subject in so much of toxicology. And you could argue that maybe that even persists today. And so things that, you know, especially when we're talking about hormones, chemicals that interfered with hormones, had different kinds of effects on people who have more estrogen in their bodies, let's say, and the hormones themselves like I, I'm hesitant, because all people have both estrogen and testosterone, for example, among other hormones. So I don't want to do this, do that thing where estrogen is seen as female, because it doesn't work that way, right? But there are different proportions of different hormones, and that are affect people differently. And furthermore, not only are individuals responding differently to toxic skins, but it's also a question of what stage of development you're at. And so one of the early assumptions of toxicology was that children were just sort of little adults. 

But we know now and scientists have shown this, that doesn't work that way, like children are developing, you know, infants, neonates are developing. And so exposure to even a small amount of a hormone interfering chemical is going to affect that developing body in much more significant and potentially harmful ways than if an adult was exposed to that same small amount of that same hormone interfering, toxic. And so just I just wanted to kind of highlight that additional sort of bias that's embedded into toxicology because that's another thing that the queer and black feminist approaches, we were talking about the beginning of our conversation. 

That's a really good example of how that kind of critical framework, you know, breaks open who that universal man is. Right. So back to your the other piece of your question about citizen science and canaries. I think, I think absolutely people who are experiencing these toxicants in ways that the dominant science doesn't necessarily allow for or just kind of dismisses as some kind of outlier on their graph. I think folks definitely need to, to the extent that they can write are willing to push back against that assumed universal human subject like people are experiencing these toxic instead. Currently, and those different experiences expose the flaws and the failures of the science that's supposed to help us make sense of these things. And so, again, I don't want to suggest that the science is all just made up, and that it's nonsense, and that we should completely throw it out. But rather that the science is incomplete, is inconclusive. And I think scientists, you know, are the first to, to acknowledge these things. And that the outliers are important and shouldn't just be, you know, kind of relegated to the edge of the graph. I think that's where it perhaps where the focus should be like, how are the most sensitive individuals responding to this toxic event? 

Not only do we need to do a better job of making sure those exposures don't happen. But also, those different responses are helping us do better science, right. And so the citizen science piece, but that's where the citizen science, I think, is so powerful and important, because it not only is empowering, I think, for people engaged in it, because they're not just helpless victims, they can take some amount of control over the situation, that's not of their choosing. But it also makes the science better, right. It also exposes the things that scientists were perhaps overlooking, maybe because they didn't they don't have that lived experience, or maybe because they've been trained in like how toxicology works, and is supposed to be and it actually like what the sort of the lessons that have come down over the generations maybe need to be rethought, opened up, reevaluated,

 

Aaron Goodman  26:46

Going back to your research about the structures, and the organisations and the individuals who study toxins, you right, that they are predominantly privileged white men, and that they are studying the impacts of chemicals, predominantly on white men. So are you saying that it's really important to include the voices and the experiences of women, Black LGBTQ women, who have not been included in these analyses?

 

Melina Packer  27:27

Not only are marginalised groups, disproportionately more exposed to toxic events, but I think also these very same groups may be, are more likely to sort of be dismissed by authorities, right, these things overlap. But I also wonder if there are, I mean, this is where this sort of different, like worldview or perspective or, you know, questioning the dominant paradigm comes in, right, because I wonder if even people we might label as sort of overprivileged in this society, maybe also have chemical sensitivity, but for wherever, whatever reason, don't come out with it. Right, don't express it as much don't categorise it as something else. Who knows? 

But I want I just want to be careful not to sort of decentralise, you know, not all women are going to respond in the same way to a toxic chemical. Not all people within a specific, you know, racial group are going to respond the same way. Right. So it's not that sort of, I want to be clear that it's not that I'm not suggesting that women are sort of naturally more sensitive somehow. But I do think, structurally, because of the fact that, for example, women tend to do more, let's just say household cleaning, right? So they're going to be more exposed to the toxic products, and household cleaning items that we can buy at the store. Right. But then, of course, with you know, occupational exposures, you know, there are probably certain lines of work in factories, for example, that maybe are predominantly those jobs are held by men. 

So I don't want to I don't want to do this thing where it's like, necessarily worse for women. I think, if anything, it's more of a class, a class difference than a race difference. But of course, in the US, people of colour are disproportionately, you know, relegated to lower classes, right? So you can't really separate race and class, but I just don't want to, I don't want to give the impression that certain bodies are somehow are essentially different, I guess is what I'm trying to say. It's not just that we like need more people of colour, who practice toxicology. 

That was my sort of take-home messages, right? Because I think my argument is that the science of toxicology itself, regardless of who the practitioner is, regardless of the individual identity of the toxicologist, the science itself makes assumptions based on a culture and society The that privileges able bodied white male perspectives and experiences of the world. Right? And I should probably add, like, financially privileged, right? So yes, absolutely, we need more scientists of colour, we need more queer scientists. But we also need different ways of practising science. We also need different understandings of the body of how people actually experience chemicals, right? There's a lot of a lot of industry representatives will say, Oh, well, this person just used that pesticide wrong. You know, they just, you know, they they spilled the toxic can on their body. And you know, if the, if you use the pesticide correctly, it's safe. 

But but the reality is, these kinds of spills happen all the time. Right. And it's not because someone's incompetent. It's just a fact of the matter that you're dealing with bottles and jars. And you know, the lid doesn't always close, right, or like the sprayer nozzle is broken, right. So I think this the scientists, the regulators, the advocates, would do well to look at how these toxins actually move through the world, in real life situations. And what marginalised voices can bring to that conversation is not only I have this particular experience, because of the structural factors that put me in a position where I'm more exposed to this chemical, but also a sort of commitment to lived experience, not just this sort of clean laboratory controlled experiment, because that's not actually how these chemicals are moving through the world. 

 

Aaron Goodman  31:44

You talk about the ways that people who report feeling ill or experience that you almost as a result of exposure to chemicals are viewed as outliers. I think anyone with chemical sensitivity can report that we're viewed as outliers. And we're misdiagnosed frequently. We're dismissed and the list goes on. I believe you also talked about scientists being willing to consider those who are experiencing things that are not expected for the listener, is there any hope that we could have that scientists who work in this field of toxicology are really interested in the lived experiences of people like listeners who have chemical sensitivity, and whose lives are severely severely disrupted and affected? Is there any real listening?

 

Melina Packer  32:38

Yeah, that's another really good question. So I want to clarify my comments about scientists being sort of the first to admit the uncertainty of toxicology. I think that's different from scientists accepting quote, unquote, outliers, lived experience, right? I don't know that. Well, first of all, toxicologists, generally are not physicians. So there's just that kind of separation of like, that's not my department, right. But I think what so called outliers reveal is that the science is not is not the authority, right? Toxicology actually cannot tell us what we need to know about toxic chemicals to protect human animal and plant life. Right. 

And I think that is scary for toxicologists to confront the idea that actually toxicology doesn't give us the answers we're seeking. At the same time, I think there are, I'm sure there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, if not tens of thousands, I don't know how many toxicologists there are in the US, just from the selection of folks I talk to I know that there are toxicologists who care very deeply about the harms these chemicals are producing in the world. And in fact, that's what led them to become toxicologists. Because they were so concerned, you know, they care about the environment, they care about people, maybe they have loved ones who suffer from chemical sensitivity. Maybe they themselves do I don't know, I didn't happen to talk to anyone who did. But it's not that, you know, I don't want to say that you know, toxicologists as a whole are dismissive of people with chemical sensitivity. Right. 

So just to be clear on that, however, I do think there's a I think you're right, that there's a reticence to admit that the science doesn't actually tell us what we need to know. And there's a reticence to admit that the science itself, there's definitely a reticence to admit that the science itself may be fundamentally biassed toward industry because what toxicology asks, is not whether a chemical is safe, but how much of a chemical can be made safe. From the beginning toxicology was about how can we make these products marketable, how can we make these products useful? Not whom should we be making these products at all. 

So even though toxicologists today, might have this sort of ladder viewpoint, like we should not be making these things, these things should not be released to the environment. And I'm going to do experiments to help better regulate chemical corporations, because I want my experiments to show how harmful this chemical is. Those folks are definitely out there. But my argument is that the science alone is never going to get us to that goal, what's going to get us to that goal is people speaking out against the not just lack of regulation, but against the sort of undue influence of industry corporations. In other words, it's this, the science alone is not going to fix the problem, because the science is so limited in what it can tell us, but people are undeniably having these experiences. And I think that's the sort of more political movement, the political will, the cultural shifts that need to happen, that are going to move the needle rather than just relying on science as some sort of neutral authority. It's not neutral, and it doesn't have all the answers.

 

Aaron Goodman  36:06

And in your work, you write about some really fascinating examples of often marginalised community communities who have come together to push back against government, against chemical corporations to voice their concerns, and to call for change. There are a number of these cases that you write about, I think listeners may be maybe wondering, what are some models that we can look at? What are some examples of folks coming together?

 

Melina Packer  36:37

So many of those environmental justice movements are not movements I studied myself, you don't necessarily just read about them, right. And my work builds on that work. But I think some of the most promising examples are situations where and I can I'll give a more specific example in a minute, but situations where there's a broad coalition of people who come together with around a shared concern, and they might have different approaches, some might be relying more on science, as you know, traditional sort of conventional dominant science, some might be more relying on their lived experience, some might be coming at it from a sort of occupational health standpoint, some might be coming at it from a racial and economic justice standpoint. 

So that I think those are the sort of most not only inspiring, but potentially more successful examples, because it's, it shows this toxic and is affecting a whole diversity of people and ecologies to different degrees, to be sure, but we can all sort of join forces around this shared concern. So for example, there's been a lot of success regulating against chemicals that are called flame retardants. So they're chemicals that were actually like legislated, particularly in the state of California, it was required that flame retardants go into things like mattresses, furniture, children's pyjamas, etc, because it was supposedly they were helping reduce fires. 

But this legislation came into being when more people smoked cigarettes. And when house fires were more common, and there's, you know, sort of at this point, there isn't quite consensus on how helpful the flame retardants actually are in terms of reducing the the extremity of a fire, for example, and meanwhile, all this research has come out that flame retardants are really harmful to human health, particularly youth and infants etc, who are you know, developing more exposed in their pyjamas and their mattresses, etc. But meanwhile, there's a flame retardant industry that is claimed that, you know, look, this is policy like California policies requiring these chemicals, we're just doing a service to the public here, we're saving lives, etc, etc. And so the the sort of movement that came together and successfully like now, California has a different rule now. 

And flame retardants are not only not required, but being phased out completely. It was a coalition of firefighters, parents, epidemiologists, and toxicologists. You know, so it was a broad diversity of folks that came together around an issue and that was able, that sort of coalition building I think, was most successful against some pretty powerful industry, right. Other examples. I mean, that's in some ways, a more traditional route, because, you know, folks who were advocating against flame retardants, we're still relying upon toxicological and epidemiological studies to make those arguments. I think there are other cases where people are trying to be actually a little bit more critical of the science itself. 

There's a lab in Canada actually called the Clear Lab. It's civic laboratory for environmental action research. And they look at I think they focus more on plastic Next, but they don't just look at what a particular plastic does to a particular body, but also, you know, which company manufactured that plastic? What are the sort of political economic structures that not only enable the production of that plastic but then allowed it to be disposed of in waterways? You know, why is there so much plastic pollution? And so their scientific work also involves these kind of political and historical questions. 

It's not sort of separated as like, you know, Island do the science and someone else does the politics, like their scientific work confronts the politics from the outset, and who's doing the science also is different in a clears work, they are very much involved with local communities, they engage citizens or residents in their sort of work to gather plastics, from the waterways, for example, to do their research, they present their research back to the local community where they conducted the research before sending it out for peer review for a scientific journal, for example. So it sort of destabilises the whole dominant scientific process, not in an anti science way. But saying, you know, we need to do science differently, we need to do science that involves people most affected by the issue from the beginning. And we need to do science, that doesn't deny the political and economic factors from the beginning. So that's a really exciting model, I think,

 

Aaron Goodman  41:30

You highlight some other really compelling examples you write about women in Japan after the nuclear disaster, who pushed back against government and science and said, the food that's grown in this toxic area is not safe, because they were being told that was you write about communities who have pushed back against the US military for the use of the chemical Agent Orange, you write about communities in South America, I believe, that have been affected by the aerial use of chemical warfare by the United States, in their attack on drug producers. You also highlight the people who are pushing back against the neg some of the negative impacts of nuclear technology, nuclear industry, the impacts of toxic pollution affecting indigenous communities in Canada. And these are just a number of examples? I wanted to ask specifically about one of these examples. Is it about the women who in the United States who pushed back against the effects of thalidomide? Was thalidomide the same as DES  [Diethylstilbestrol]?

 

Melina Packer  42:47

No, those are two different chemical disasters. So DES is a synthetic estrogen. It was prescribed as a sort of solution to miscarriage, and menopause. So it's already sort of highly gendered. And this is the 1950s. So it was even worse, back then. Right. And it turned out, you know, so that it's questionable what the actual symptoms were that women might have been experiencing. And it's, you know, one wonders, what 1950s us doctors were telling women, there's others have written extensively on D S, Julie Z, and Nancy Langston, among others. So I'm sort of highlighting their research really is not my own research. But the point being DES is a good example. 

Sort of terrible, but good example, in the sense that it's a it shows how a particular synthetic chemical was produced with profit motives and had especially harmful effects on women, because of the ways it was marketed to women in a particular cultural and historical moment where women were condescended to right, not taken seriously, etc, and also expected to perform a certain kind of femininity, you know, or it's like this sort of fear of menopause or miscarriage seeing as something being wrong with the woman physically, right. 

So DES is a synthetic estrogen. So of course, it interferes with hormones, and it ended up causing really terrible is really rare vaginal cancer, not for the women who took it, but for their children and grandchildren. And it was because it was such a rare cancer, it was sort of easier to connect to a DES, because it was unusual to see this cancer, and it was there was a clear correlation there because the women whose children and grandchildren are suffering from this disease all had this shared experience of having taken DES.

Thalidomide is another example. Oh, and the important thing about both d s and thalidomide is that toxicology tests actually did exist that showed harmful outcomes again to rodents, but it showed harmful outcomes. And those results of those scientific experiments were minimised, perhaps even not included in the company's application to get the chemical approved. So that's another example of how the system benefits industry. And in particularly gendered ways in these cases. So thalidomide is another pharmaceutical that was, I'm not remembering now, what it was meant to treat. But it also caused really sort of severe physical and mental, like developmental issues. For the children of people who had taken, I think, mostly women, I don't even know if they looked at the fathers. That's another sort of missing piece of the science, it's always assumed that the mother who carries the child is the cause of the child's health issues, but it caused very severe physical and mental disabilities in deformities, you know, like missing limbs or limbs growing out of the wrong place, etc. And so and there was a lot of mortality to a lot of infants born with these deformities didn't survive very long. So severe developmental interferences because of that drug. 

And the story with thalidomide is that, again, some scientific studies had been done suggesting potentially harmful outcomes. But in the in the sort of rush and greed of the chemical corporation to prod, profit off the product, those results were kind of dismissed, again as outliers, right. But fortunately, in the US, the woman who was working for the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration at the time, refused the company's application to market the lid amide in the US, so that thalidomide incident ended up being worse for the European women, women who had taken it. But there were several, I think, several thousand women in the US who took it, because apparently doctors, the company distributed samples to doctors, which apparently was legal, even before it was officially approved for market. And dissemination in the US. There were samples out there, and so some women had taken it. 

So again, it's sort of this pathologizing of perhaps a natural phenomenon for pregnant people. I think, initially, disease is designed as a sedative. So it's like also sedating women, right? I mean, there's so many levels of patriarchy at work here. But yeah, it's just this sort of, you know, it's ironic, because toxicology for good reason, you know, is designed such that people cannot be experimented on, or that that's the that ideal, but in reality we are all being experimented on, because the toxicology that exists, doesn't tell us everything we need to know because it can't, because chemicals are just inherently uncertain.

And I do believe that because these products are specifically for women, or because pesticides are more of a problem for the working class for the disenfranchised, then, you know, the people producing these toxicants and the people, the scientists, who in many cases, are employed by industry and deciding whether these toxins are safe or not, at the same risk of the harms those toxiants produce, I think we've inherited a system, a science, a regulatory structure, a capitalist economy, that is very much rooted in all those isms, right? Like capitalism is very much been a sort of racist or not sort of has always been capitalism and racism cannot be separated, because from the very beginning, capitalism depended on labour force, that they justified, paying less or not paying at all in the case of enslaved peoples, because of how those labouring bodies were racialized. 

Capitalism also depends on patriarchy, because workers are supported in going to work by an invisible workforce at home, right? That's preparing meals, that's raising children, right, like feminists call this social reproduction. So yes, in the sense that, you know, toxicology emerged from a settler colonial country in the US, right, like, so that, I mean, it's sort of like so big and complex that I'm struggling to, you know, articulated concise statement about it. But, you know, there's so many levels. 

So if we start with the fact that the United States is built on near genocide of Indigenous peoples, of course, there are survivors who still here, but near-genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of African peoples, right, so that is like the foundation of the United States. And so in the sense that powerful white moneyed, perhaps former, you know, descendants of people who enslaved others, etc, like the people in power in the United States in the mid-century, were beneficiaries have a fundamentally racist, sexist, colonialist, imperialist system, right? So it's sort of that level, we've inherited that legacy. And so those legacies have not gone away. Right, we see that in structural racism, we see that in, you know, the continued disparities, health disparities, people of colour versus white people in the US regardless of income, right? We see that in terms of the continued verities of you know, how much women make to the dollar for men in this country, and like women of colour make even less than white women, right? For the same work. So, of course, we've inherited all those legacies. And it's no different with toxicology and other sciences. 

So I think, but I think they're also important changes. I think, like I said before, toxicologists are not necessarily politically aligned with the military industrial complex anymore. Like that's sort of that's the origins of the discipline. But that's not true today. I think many toxicologists, and epidemiologists, like I said, go into that field precisely because they care so much about creating a cleaner, healthier, safer, more pleasurable world. And I think generally, you know, unfortunately, in many cases, because of all the lived experiences, like people who may not be sort of consider themselves politically active or even left leaning, you know, I think people all across the political spectrum are experiencing the effects of toxic exposures. And so that's, I think that's been a sort of awakening for folks just starting to connect their personal experiences with these larger structures. 

And I also think, you know, in terms of like, any of us going into a big box store, and just being exposed to all these toxic things without our consent, I mean, that's really the issue, right? It shouldn't be on us as individuals to have to navigate like, oh, which product is cleaner, and which store can I breathe in because they don't have carpeting, you know, like, the default should be the healthy, safe option, we shouldn't be trying to navigate, you know, impossibly like right, chemicals are now completely unavoidable. Like I said, even chemicals that have been banned, persist in the environment, it shouldn't be on us to try and navigate those obstacles and threats, especially when we can't like if, if I'm a farm worker, if I work in a factory, or if I'm a house cleaner, or if I'm manufacturing carpeting, right, like I can't avoid exposure to those toxic assets, my livelihood, can't, you know, blame the victim, right, or blame individuals for not doing a good job, either avoiding the chemical or, you know, spraying the pesticide, right. 

So that I think that the onus should be on government is supposed to serve the public good and public health to rein in these corporations. But it's not easy. I mean, again, even if we had the political will, we've come to depend on plastics, right? Even chemicals that we've finally banned are still persisted in the environment. So I think the work now is definitely to continue to hold these corporations accountable, and the government regulators who sort of give them a pass, but also, we need to really, I think, care for one another. And I think there's a troubling tendency and a lot of anti toxics advocacy, that kind of stigmatises people who have been poisoned. And so I think, you know, in the case of Flint, for example, with lead, you know, the way that those kids who had been exposed to lead were being portrayed in the media was sort of these like, Oh, they're going to be like disabled and unintelligent, and their, their lives are doomed, you know, it's just really, it's sort of really, really stigmatising, and you know, what's most troubling to me about that is that it sort of veers toward almost like a kind of eugenics ideology, where people have, you know, people of colour are assumed to be already a sort of lesser human. 

That's the system that got us to this place where people of colour are disproportionately more exposed to toxic skins, because there is this ideology of them sort of being less deserving, already impure, etc, right? Very uncomfortable with environmental scientists and advocates who sort of use people of colour for example, or use people with disabilities as like, these are all the terrible things that will happen to you. And this is why we have to regulate chemicals like I just feel like that's the that's a really bad move politically. We don't want to stigmatise that's what got us here in the first place. But yeah, I'm sort of going off on a tangent now but I think, you know, being in you know, The United States and Canada, these are settler colonial countries, we are never going to, we have to confront the ways that these legacies are ongoing. But it's not a it's not a death sentence. And the more I think we confront, and come face to face with these histories, the better we can choose different futures, right?

 

Aaron Goodman  55:21

You write about the need for care, and you quote, Saudi Hartman, who writes that care is the antidote to violence. Do you think we can have any hope that the folks who are regulating these chemicals that impact our lives, will care, care about the suffering that we experience?

 

Melina Packer  55:47

I think I mean, of course, I want to say yes. And I also think it's interesting, right? Because I don't. And this was part of why I wanted to do this project, because I was really struggling to understand like, are toxicologists and regulators like so uncaring? Like? Are they really just evil people that can't? How can that be? or can that be? You know, and, and maybe I'm overthinking it, maybe, maybe people who work for chemical companies are just evil. But I that seems to me over simplified. 

I think, let's set industry aside because I do think that's a, you could make the case that people who work for the chemical industry are just bad people. So I'm going to put that aside. But for example, regulators, right, like people who work for the public good, although there is a tendency in the United States for that to be a revolving door, and people work for industry and then work for the agency that's supposed to regulate that very industry. But anyway, let's say we're just talking about, you know, the really sort of well-intentioned individuals who work for the public good, whether as academic researchers or scientists and nonprofits or regulators in public health at the federal and state levels, etc. I don't think they're uncaring. I think they have faith in a system that's fundamentally broken, I think what's harder for people to wrap their minds around, is that science is not neutral. It's never been neutral. It's not objective. It's not even necessarily the authority on certain issues. 

And I think that's harder for people to grasp. Because we, you know, it's understandable that desire for that sort of system that just gives you a clean, simple answer, like it's, it would be so it's sort of an I feel like for some folks, science is sort of an escape from like, the messy complexities of life. And if chemicals in particular, are nearly impossible to sort of trace, or impossible to predict how they're going to react with other substances, etc. How they're going to show up generations later, you know, like, these are unpredictable, uncontrollable things. And toxicology gives people a sense of control. And it gives I think, it gives people a sense of, we need to find an answer. That's not what's the word, I'm looking forward, we need to find a solution. That's not political. And I think that that's just everything's political, we can avoid the politics. And I think the sooner we sort of accept that even science is political. And that's a tricky thing to say, right now, with all this sort of anti-science, you know, climate denial stuff, like I get why scientists are defensive in this historical moment. 

And that's why I try to be really careful in how I express this in my work. But I think to get back to your question, I think regulators there are regulators who genuinely care don't want to be part of a system that's harming people and other living beings. But they have faith in a scientific process. That's actually quite flawed. And even if I mean, like I said, the toxicologist I talked to are the first student to acknowledge that toxicology is imperfect. And it relies on prediction and extrapolation, etc. There's still this sense that, well, it's the best thing we've got. It's more reliable than someone's lived experience, because they're biassed they're emotional. They're subjective, you know. And so I think that's something that needs to shift, this privileging of scientific knowledge above other forms of knowledge. So yeah, I think I think it's not about not caring, but the scientific solutions are a bit too, are like avoiding the messy complexity of life, and politics.

 

Aaron Goodman  59:24

Well, it's been extremely fascinating hearing you I've learned so much. I think what you shared will be really beneficial for listeners, if I may, as we perhaps move to wrapping up our chat. I wanted to ask one more question, if I may. You talked about some really compelling examples of folks who've been affected by chemical exposures come together and push back not everyone can do because of the nature of illness. Some people are very disabled and isolated and can't necessarily do that. In cases like that. You know, a lot of people are turning to the Internet, whether it's joining an online group, forming, creating solidarity and in that way, would you say that that is a form of activism in itself a form of citizen science? You know, even just making a testimony online saying, I too am affected by these chemicals. Is that a form of activism? And what of other things can folks do to make a difference?

 

Melina Packer  1:00:20

Yeah, I think absolutely. Not only is it a form of activism, but it's an important form of care work. Right. I think there's a tendency to sort of valorize the, like, protesting on the street, you know, testifying before Congress, like there's a tendency to valorize that work is the only kind of political organising that does anything. But even that sort of political organising, requires people behind the scenes offering care and support for one another, right, I think. Absolutely. And it's very true in this instance, as with a lot of contested illnesses, like the people who would be the activists, the resistors, are, you know, prevented from doing so from for a variety of reasons. 

And so, yeah, I think there are other forms of activism, I think care work should be recognised for the absolutely fundamental piece of the puzzle that it is in all kinds of endeavours, right? Whether we're talking about caring for people, so they can be productive workers in a capitalist system, or caring for people with chemical sensitivity, so they can support other folks who are maybe the ones protesting on the street or lobbying Congress people, right? So yes, the short answer is, Yes, that's absolutely a form of activism and care work that exposes the flaws in the current system and points to a different, better, more caring way forward. 

And I think, you know, one of the things the pandemic has taught folks who weren't already having to shelter in place, right, is that there are still ways of connecting that don't necessarily require us putting our bodies at risk, and that connecting online or virtually, can actually be really beneficial for different people in different contexts. So video, testimonies, audio, testimonies, visual essays, whatever, whatever your sort of creative outlet and impulse is, like, absolutely, the more voices the better, because, you know, it's like with the, the me to movement that galvanised a huge shift culturally, and it wasn't necessarily because people were out protesting on the street, it was just sort of giving testimony in different media. So that can be very powerful. 

And I think you're absolutely right, that people living with these illnesses or disabilities, however, we want to categorise them are absolutely the experts on that experience, and should always be sort of, should be considered the authorities of their own experience rather than some scientist who might have good intentions but doesn't have that lived experience.

 

Aaron Goodman  1:03:05

That brings us to the end of this episode of the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. Thank you very much to Melina Packer for speaking with me on the podcast. The podcast is produced by me Aaron Goodman, Raynee Novak and Kristy Eklund. We release new episodes twice a month. Please subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts to never miss an episode. Leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It's a great way to help others find the podcast and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok. Just search for The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or PodcastingMCS. Leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast and please share the podcast with others.

The podcast is also available on YouTube. You can read closed captions in any language you like. You can support the podcast and help us continue creating greater awareness about MCS. Please find the link in the episode descriptions at chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org If there's someone you'd like to hear interviewed on the podcast or a topic you'd like us to explore, just let us know send an email to info@ chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org and thanks so much for listening.

Aaron introduces the podcast and episode.
Melina talks about Black feminist and queer theory and their connections to toxicology.
Melina talks about her personal background and how it connects to her research.
Melina explains why she started studying toxicology.
Melina explores how societies became inundated with toxicants.
Melina shares how toxicants in the US are under-regulated and how laws favor corporations.
Melina talks about citizen science and how regulations could better match many people's needs.
Melina shares how women's experiences with chemicals are not widely understood by toxicologists.
Melina shares more problems with toxicology.
Melina talks about communities that have pushed back against chemical manufacturers and laws that do not protect them.
Melina talks about DES and thalidomide.
Melina speaks about "the need to care" and how this is relevant to toxicology.
Melina talks about how sharing one's experiences about MCS online is a form of activism.
Aaron concludes the episode.