An Interview with Kim Harley
What is the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH)? What are the goals of the organization?
CERCH is a research center at U.C. Berkeley that strives to understand and reduce environmental threats to children’s health, locally and globally. We are a group of researchers and community educators that:
- Investigates chemical exposures to future parents and their children
- Evaluates effects of these exposures on child health and development
- Translates our research findings into sustainable strategies to reduce environment-related childhood disease.
We aim to accomplish these goals through community-based partnerships across the world. Our projects include studies of pesticide, flame retardant, and other chemical exposures in low-income pregnant women and children living in California agricultural communities; DDT and pyrethroid pesticide exposure in a malaria-endemic area of South Africa; and dioxin exposure for women and children living near a chemical plant accident in Italy.
The HERMOSA Study is a youth-led, community-based study looking at chemical exposure to Latina teenage girls from personal care products. We hope to learn the extent of adolescent girls’ exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals from cosmetics, make-up, and other personal care products, and then reduce this exposure using low-chemical products and health education. HERMOSA means “beautiful” in Spanish, which is appropriate since our project focuses on Latina teens.
Ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are poorly regulated in the United States. Many personal care products that we regularly put on our face, hair, body, and teeth contain compounds that are known or suspected endocrine disruptors – chemicals that block, mimic, or interfere with hormones in the body. Women use twice as many personal care products as men, and adolescent girls use even more. Thus, teens are at increased exposure to endocrine disruption at a time when their bodies are undergoing important reproductive development. Animal studies suggest that endocrine disruptors can impact ovarian and breast development, but at this point we have no evidence what the long-term reproductive health impacts are on girls and women.
What did this study do?
One of the communities that we have worked in for many years is the largely Latino neighborhood of East Salinas, California. This is a population where teens are not often able to participate in scientific research and are not aware of endocrine disruption or environmental health.
We enrolled 100 girls living in this community and interviewed them extensively about their beauty product routines and, specifically, which products they had used in the past two days. Then we took a urine sample to measure the levels of four common endocrine disruptors found in cosmetics – phthalates (used in fragrance), parabens (a preservative), triclosan (found in antibacterial soap), and oxybenzone (a sunscreen agent). The girls then visited our “Beauty Bar” where they were allowed to select a week’s worth of low-chemical alternative products and learned about endocrine disruption. The girls returned three days later and gave another urine sample, which we analyzed to see if their chemical body burden decreased.
What were your favorite things about working on this project?
We have a group of high school students in Salinas who have been working with CERCH for two years as members of our youth community council. A big goal of HERMOSA was to involve and engage local youth. The youth council has been an equal partner in this study the entire way. Its members helped come up with the idea, told us what would be appropriate to ask and do, and designed the study activities. Fifteen of the youth were hired as summer research assistants, and they did all the participant recruitment, study interviewing, and education. It was their study!
When will the study be complete, and what do you expect to find?
This month, we are getting the urinary chemical levels back from the lab. We hope to find that changing the products they use reduces girls’ body burden of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Additionally, we are interested to see which girls had high levels of endocrine disruptors in their urine and baseline.
Once we analyze our results, the CERCH youth will take the lead on sharing the results with the girls in the study, the Salinas community, and the advocacy community at large. We have worked with these youth to teach them about environmental health research. Now we want to help them become advocates.