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Then & Now Blog Series

Welcome to WEN Then & Now. In honor of WEN’s 20th anniversary in 2017, we’re reconnecting with our former board members, thinking about how our organization has evolved and grown, and planning for our next transformation. Follow along with us in this blog series as we spotlight these inspiring women. Previous posts featured Jenn Fox and Darcey Rosenblatt. Our latest post features Sue Chiang, who will be a guest speaker on October 17 for WEN’s event featuring how we can protect ourselves from harmful chemicals and push for policies that get dangerous substances out of our lives.

About Sue Chiang

Sue Chiang is the Pollution Prevention Director at Center for Environmental Health, based in Oakland. She has spent her career working on a variety of environmental health issues that involve researching toxic chemicals and their potential effects on our health. She is passionate about identifying more comprehensive health protective strategies that look upstream and prevent the use of toxic chemicals in the first place. She holds Master’s degrees in Public Policy and Public Health from the University of California at Berkeley. WEN Board Member, Sandra Lupien, spoke with Sue about her work on toxics and on her longtime involvement as a member, and then Board Member of WEN, over its first decade.

Q&A with Sue Chiang

How did you discover WEN, and why did you join the Board?

I became involved in WEN in 1993 or 1994, early in its formation. I had just graduated from college two weeks before moving to the Bay Area from New York City for my first real, career-focused job researching toxics at Environmental Defense Fund.

I don’t remember exactly how I found out about WEN, but I was excited to become involved with a group of women in the environmental field who wanted to connect and network. At the time, all the meetings took place in members’ homes and were pretty informal. Eventually we started having guest speakers, but it was awhile before we began moving toward more formal events, hosting a jobs list, and then publishing a newsletter to help women connect with opportunities in environmental fields.

I was part of the group who worked to get WEN incorporated as a non-profit during 1996. I joined the first board in 1997, and I served until 2005.

What have you gained from being involved in WEN? What have you contributed?

Being new to the Bay Area and a young environmental professional, WEN was a great way to meet women working in the environmental field. It offered incredible opportunities to learn from women working in environmental roles across sectors—business, government, non-profit. Having that access was new to me.

At the beginning, I think I was one of the only participants in that entry-level career stage, and I was able to add a different perspective. I didn’t have enough experience to teach, but I brought questions that added to our conversations.

I joined the Board because I was interested in helping the group evolve and grow.

How did WEN change during the time you were involved?

Once we incorporated, there was an influx of women who brought new energy and skills that helped take WEN to a new, more formalized level.

We started hosting more frequent happy hours and events with speakers, which gave women the opportunity to meet a lot of new people and network.

Did any of the connections you made through WEN have a particularly strong influence on your career or development?

I met so many people who’ve influenced me in various ways. But, a specific example is a member of the WEN community nominated me for the Switzer Fellowship, which provides support and leadership training to graduate students focused on the environmental space. My connection with Switzer, while I was at UC Berkeley, led directly to my first job out of grad school because leadership grants placed fellows with non-profits that couldn’t afford to fund a staff position on their own. I was able to join the staff of Greenaction when it was first getting started out of the home of its founder, Bradley Angel.

Tell us about your work at Center for Environmental Health (CEH).

CEH works to protect the public from exposure to toxic chemicals. CEH is focused on changing the way companies do business and reforming and reshaping how regulators protect us, in order to make every family safer.

My team is focused specifically on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and we assist progressive companies and agencies in their efforts to protect their customers, employees and the public overall by using their buying power to incentivize and source healthier, more environmentally sustainable products.

You know, we all assume that if a product is being sold on the market, it must be “safe”—for example, you wouldn’t expect there to be “lead”, a harmful heavy metal, in children’s products or a carcinogen in shampoos. Unfortunately, under our current regulatory system, chemicals are essentially considered “innocent” until proven “guilty”–and the burden is unfortunately on us as consumers to demonstrate that we are being harmed.

We shouldn’t have to worry that our food ware contains highly fluorinated chemicals for “grease resistance” or that there is lead in our kids’ shoes.

My coworker has grandkids and watches them put on their shoes, and take them off, and then touch their faces or eat (Parents know that no matter how hard we try to keep their hands clean, kids are always moving too fast!); it’s ridiculous that she should even have to think, “Oh, are they now exposed to lead?”

So, even as we work with companies to get toxic ingredients out of their products (and we’ve seen some great success!), we continue to push for a more comprehensive and health-protective system that requires companies to disclose ingredients, test their chemicals for safety, and use the safest chemicals available.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Regulation moves really slowly and tends to focus only on one chemical at a time, which has led to a practice that is often referred to as “regrettable substitution.” This is what happens when public outcry and advocacy succeed in regulating out the use of one really bad chemical, only for another, untested and unregulated one that might be just as bad or worse, to take its place. Thankfully, that trend is beginning to change and we’re seeing more categories or classes of chemicals being regulated together. This offers an opportunity—I hope—for meaningful change to happen more quickly.

What do women need to know about toxic chemicals?

Our hormones, produced by the endocrine system, direct almost every function of our bodies – shaping our fertility, our behavior, our physical and mental development, our intelligence, our metabolism, and our longevity. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) can mimic, block, or disrupt our bodies’ natural hormones and these synthetic chemicals are unfortunately found in hundreds of common products such as plastics, food containers and cosmetics. Exposures at extremely tiny levels can lead to serious health problems, sometimes with life-long consequences. Studies have linked EDC exposures to infertility, breast and prostate cancer, diabetes and obesity, and a variety of other diseases.

Most people may be familiar with plastic products that are advertised as “BPA-free”. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an EDC which was once used as a synthetic estrogen and then was put to use in a wide range of products including food packaging, containers, as canned food liners and in thermal paper for cash register receipts. Both animal and human studies have linked BPA exposures to a host of serious health problems, and only after a hard-fought campaign by several health groups did companies start to move away from its use in certain products like sippy cups and reusable water bottles. Unfortunately, labeling a product as “BPA-free” doesn’t tell you what was put in its place. For example, CEH found that the BPA in cash register receipts was largely replaced with a closely related chemical called BPS, which may be as harmful or more harmful than BPA.

For women who want to have babies, there are reproductive issues associated with exposure to some of these chemicals. And, nursing babies are at the highest level of the food chain, which means they are exposed to the highest levels of these bioaccumulated chemicals.

We are constantly exposed in our everyday lives to chemicals we don’t have any say over. There are so many competing concerns that people sometimes don’t have the capacity to think about it. My goal—and that of CEH—is to make it so people don’t have to worry about this stuff because the products will have ingredients that have been tested and will be using safer ingredients

What can women do to protect themselves now?

There are a number of great lists that enable people to educate themselves about which products are safe, and which products to avoid. Here are three:

Once adults understand which products to choose and which to avoid, it’s easy to teach kids, from a young age, right? It’s like separating the trash from the recycling from the compost.

What hope do you have for making systematic change to protect people from toxics?

What’s exciting is that we are making a difference! Exciting things are happening in green chemistry, for example, to produce ingredients that don’t carry these health risks. We’re pushing for policy change. We’re going to companies and using the laws we have—like California’s Proposition 65, which requires companies to disclose at the point of sale if products contain certain toxic chemicals—and in most cases, have actually succeeded in getting manufacturers to remove the toxic chemical and/or use different, non-toxic ingredients. This strategy has helped to get lead out of a lot of children’s products.

What is your favorite thing about your work?

I love that I get to work with so many people and organizations and companies that want to make a change, do the right thing.