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New Company Markets Chemical Detecting Wristbands

Rachael McDonald

Scientists at Oregon State University have developed a wristband that can detect chemicals in the environment. Advocacy groups see them as a tool to help people to find out what they're being exposed to and eventually use the information to affect policy. And a new company hopes to sell the wristbands commercially.

These days it seems like there's a silicone bracelet for every cause. But these ones are special. Here at OSU in Corvallis, Chemist Kim Anderson is in her lab where she's worked for years developing simple tools to measure chemicals in the air.

Anderson: "The key is that we can look for lots of things. We're not just limited to a certain kind of contaminant. And so I think it's that breadth that's one of the reasons the tool is really unique."

Anderson says the wristbands act as sponges, soaking up
airborne chemicals including pesticides, flame retardants, even the additives in shampoo. She can test them on two machines here in the lab.

Anderson: "So you can place the wristband into this little chamber"

Anderson can test for 14 hundred different chemicals.

Credit Rachael McDonald
OSU Chemistry Professor Kim Anderson in her lab on campus in Corvallis.

The wristbands have been used in some pilot programs. Oregon U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley is using info gathered by wristband wearers in crafting an update to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.  A Eugene-based advocacy group is using the wristbands in their study of the health of residents of West Eugene. Lisa Arkin is Executive Director of Beyond Toxics.

Arkin: "We've been working with the neighborhoods there and focusing especially on working class neighborhoods, minority residents and children to get a handle on what exacerbated health problems they might have because of the industrialized nature of the neighborhoods there."

Arkin is excited for what she sees as a potential for people to be citizen scientists.

So is Marc Epstein. He's an entrepreneur based in Philadelphia. He's friends with chemist Kim Anderson and is in charge of MyExposome, an online company that markets the wristbands to consumers.

Epstein: "Right now, we're really in the onesie, twosie. We're just introducing this to the world and trying to build some energy around it."

People can order the wristbands online. The idea is to wear them for a week or so, send them back and have them tested for chemicals.

Epstein: "And we're going to prepare back for you a report, both as a printed document that you can examine and give you a website as well that you can look at and provide links to scientific information around the world on the various chemicals that were found and that gives you a starting point to kind of make the invisible visible to you."

Epstein says right now it costs $1000 for a wristband and the testing. But he's hoping to generate enough demand that the cost can be reduced.  

OSU chemist Kim Anderson thinks its empowering for people to find out what they're being exposed to in their daily life.

Anderson:  "They can do whatever they want with that information. I trust that they're capable of that. You don’t need a college education to, or be a chemist, to appreciate that."

Reporter: "Have you worn the wristband?"
Anderson: "I have. And I will share that one of the biggest compounds on my wristband is caffeine. And it's very accurate. I do drink a lot of beverages that have caffeine in them."

Anderson and Epstein hope groups like first responders, the military and workplace unions might be interested in the wristbands as a tool to detect what personnel are being exposed to.


Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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