“Better Living Through Chemistry” explores issues raised in the Toxic Bodies/Toxic Environments Forum that appeared in the October 2008 issue. We thank the National Science Foundation, which funded the workshop at the ASEH’s conference and the preparation of teaching materials. We thank Sarah Mittlefehldt for preparing the teaching unit.
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New technologies and methods for the detection of toxics, particularly endocrine disruptors released by plastics, have drawn increasing attention toward the pervasive and persistent presence of synthetic chemicals in our lives. Some of these tests, such as biomonitoring and body burden analyses, highlight that we not only experience our environment in very obvious ways, but that we are also united with it at the molecular level. Trace chemicals found in the air, water, and soil are now been being detected within us. The very chemical composition of our bodies is being altered in ways that reflect the transformations of our everyday environments. This teaching unit will help students use the tools of environmental history to investigate the challenges posed by new synthetic chemicals, focusing on the case study of toxic chemicals in plastics, including bisphenol A, PVC, and phthlates.
Toxic Bodies/Toxic Environments Forum, October 2008 Environmental History
Teaching the Article
This unit includes four lessons, each comprised of several activities. Download the pdf file below that contains detailed historical background for each exercise, activities, discussion questions, and source suggestions.
Exercise 1: “Better Living Through Chemistry:” Exploring the Role of Plastic in Post-WWII Culture. The first unit explores the economic, cultural, and political factors that caused plastic to become a significant part of American society in the postwar era. It also examines concerns about the potential effects of new synthetic chemicals that emerged in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Exercise 2: Exploring the Hidden Costs of “Better Living”: The second lesson helps connect debates over the potential effects of chemicals associated with plastics to the broader environmental, public and consumer health movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. The lesson also looks at issues of how risk, uncertainty, and new knowledge about chemicals evolved.
Exercise 3: The PVC Story: Exploring Responses, Regulation, and Research Validity. Lesson three uses the controversy around PVC as a case study and explores questions about regulation and research validity regarding potential threats to environmental and human health. Building on themes raised in the first two lessons, students will consider the question of how do people know what they know? What is the role of science in political decision-making?
Exercise 4: Exploring the Future History of Plastics: Contemporary Debates about Bisphenol-A and Phthalates. In the fourth lesson, students will engage in a hearing about the regulation of bisphenol-A, a chemical found in polycarbonate plastic. In April 2008, Senator Charles E. Schumer introduced national legislation to ban bisphenol-A in consumer products—particularly in children’s goods. This lesson will encourage students to make connections between ideas and themes from previous lessons and apply these ideas to the contemporary debate over bisphenol-A.
The full unit can be downloaded as a single link below. The first is adapted for high school classroom. The second is for undergraduate use.