GUEST COLUMN: Another silicone bracelet?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 16:33

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This one claims to measure toxic exposures

By Abby Lippman  

It seems that my tendency to see glasses half filled, if not empty, when others are happily seeing them brimming with new possibilities only increases with time. With this advance warning, I want to outline why I am not going to rush to get—nor to suggest others rush out to get—the newest of the wide array of color-coded silicone rubber bracelets which will likely soon become hot-ticket and heavily marketed items.

It used to be that a person could be said to wear her heart on her sleeve when her feelings for a new love were obvious to all. Of late, it has become more a case of sporting a cause on one's wrist. And to do so, one can sample—if not wear examples of—a full palette of color-tinted rubber circles on an arm: red (heart disease); yellow (testicular cancer); blue (arthritis); teal (cervical cancer); ; green (liver cancer); purple (Alzheimer’s disease); a rainbow braid (LGBTQI); and the almost omnipresent pink (breast cancer).

These designer accessories—the products of feel-good cause marketing campaigns—have, to date, offered individuals an outlet for their “political” self-identification. But for the future, it seems they are possibly to be restyled to also become technologically enhanced forms of “arm candy.”

In brief, some clever researchers appear to be taking  advantage of silicone's ability to absorb compounds to which it is exposed. By developing a way to measure what is captured in the silicone, they may then be able to determine what chemicals are probably entering an individual’s body and subsequently link these exposures to conditions and diseases she may later develop.


See also, the guest column on "precautionary consumption" by Robyn Lee and Dayna Nadine Scott

I do not doubt how welcome this may be for epidemiologists and public health policy makers who have long sought to avoid the traps of applying population-based and ecological data (e.g., kilograms of pesticide used on a farm; measurements of air pollutants in a city; endocrine disruptor levels in an automobile manufacturing plant) to the individual worker or commuter. If the kind of bracelet tried out can absorb exposures, it might be able to record what any one individual actually experiences herself and provide specific information over a period of time. With flick-of-the-wrist analyses, these bracelets could then allow researchers to replace studies of association (weak) with studies of causality (the biomedical holy grail).

So why am I concerned?

To explain, it may be useful to think of the critiques that have previously been addressed to what is in many ways an earlier, allegedly “empowering,” approach to strengthening individuals. I refer here to the calls from many in the environmental movements to "buy green" and thereby have a way to reduce their personal exposure to toxic substances. Might the exposure-measuring bracelets be yet another "feel good" but status-quo-supporting gesture. Or, even worse, a source of guilt if we were to blame ourselves when we know what we may have let ourselves be exposed to? At the least, both situations seem to presume that all women are able to make choices (about household and personal care products; about where they can work and live and what they may be exposed to) and change from the “worst” to a “better” option.

Moreover, I do seriously doubt whether measuring personal exposures will really be a no-risk advantage for bracelet wearers. Is having the information sufficient to protect our health? Or, as with checking labels so as to buy only “green” products, might not reading the outputs from bracelets also lead primarily to attempts (by those who have the resources to do so) to buy their way out of danger—thereby simply shifting the focus of consumerism but doing nothing to change the capitalist system which will merely churn out new stuff to market (and to harm us). And this may lead to guilt feelings among those for whom buying “green” is not a “choice” because of price, availability, or other constraints on their available options. (For a detailed analysis of this “precautionary consumption” see the excellent work of Dayna Scott and read the report, Sex, Gender and Chemicals).

It seems to me that wearing a potentially warning bracelet can turn us into our own canaries in the mines in which we live and work, signalling danger but not giving us the power to change the system creating the danger. In fact, might these adornments work paradoxically to decrease changes by making us feel individually guilty about how and where we live and work, reinforcing notions of personal responsibility for being exposed, and distracting us from creating the collective approaches needed to fight and advocate for upstream political change.

Caveat emptor….

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. Also an academic based at McGill and Concordia Universities and passionate about writing, Abby is past president of the CWHN, and is now on the boards of the FQPN and Centre for Gender Advocacy where she works in solidarity to build an inclusive reproductive justice movement in Québec. Read another column by Abby Lippman.