Selling Sickness: Biology, Capital, and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Every year in the U.S., around 2,000 new synthetic chemicals enter the market, adding ceaselessly to the 80,000 already in commercial use nationally. Under existing regulations, it would take the Environmental Protection Agency centuries to finish reviewing the entire domestic stock. In the absence of more rigorous government oversight, popular campaigns have arisen to highlight the ubiquity and dangers of synthetic chemicals, from Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) insecticide to Bisphenol-A (BPA), the chemical found in numerous consumer goods. Yet, despite the best efforts of consumer safety advocates, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—so-called because they interfere with human endocrine, or hormone, functionality—continue to proliferate in essential household items and cosmetic products. How can we understand the role EDCs play in shaping contemporary life, from the microscopic level of cellular biology to the macroscopic level of global economy? Is the use of EDCs connected to the rise of chronic diseases such as obesity and cancer, and if so, how? How necessary are EDCs to agricultural production and the improvement of living standards, and how can we understand their uneven regulation by government agencies? And, given the seeming uncertainties surrounding EDCs, what does their widespread use tell us about the nature of “public health” and the social allocation of risk? What would it mean to limit, or even reduce to zero, our exposure to “everyday” EDCs?
In this course, we explore the chemistry, applications, and biological and social ramifications of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Using the case of BPA (the poster child of EDCs), we will examine the basic biology of hormone action, how EDCs interfere with hormone action and their effects on development and disease, the politics behind the regulation of such chemicals, and what can be done from a public health perspective. Readings will include empirical scientific papers as well as works by authors such as Sheldon Krimsky, Laura Vandenberg, Rachel Carson, Ellen Griffith Spears, Theo Colborn, and Max Liboiron, among others. And throughout, we will ask, what can the use and regulation of EDCs teach us about the intersection of science, society, and economy?
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 15 — December 13, 2022
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Tuesday, November 22nd