Protecting Our Families’ Health, Protecting Our Future: The LUCIR study

July 26, 2021
a woman stands at a window, cleaning. she is wearing protective equipment: gloves, goggles, and a mask.CDC/UNSPLASH
James Earl Schier Nolan, Andrea Alonzo, Edwin Rodriguez
Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

What is really in our cleaning products? Who is most affected? What habits can we change to reduce our exposures to harmful chemicals? These questions and more are answered by the LUCIR study, conducted by youth in Salinas, CA, a predominantly Latinx farmworker community, in collaboration with researchers from UC Berkeley and La Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas.

About Us

James Earl Schier Nolan: Can you tell me about why you wanted to engage in this project? What motivated you the most?

Andrea Alonzo: Ever since I can remember, our families have taught us how to care for ourselves. One of the most important lessons is cleanliness. We clean when we wake up, before we sleep, and when we are expecting guests. Many of us clean our homes every day to the point where it can be considered necessary in our lives. House cleaning has become second nature for us, and we’re sure many Latinx households can relate.

Edwin Rodriguez: Now it is our turn to give back to the community that raised us. Andrea and I, together with a special cohort of other high school-aged environmental health leaders in Salinas, conducted a study to determine our community’s exposures to potentially harmful chemicals in the cleaning products they use.

The logo for the LUCIR (which translated from Spanish means “to shine”) Study (left)
The youth council in the summer of 2019 (right)

What is LUCIR?

JESN: What was the focus of the LUCIR Study? Why is it called “LUCIR”?

ER: The LUCIR Study, or Lifting Up Communities by Intervening with Research, is a study we conducted in our small city of Salinas. The goals of the study are to investigate Latina women’s exposures to chemicals in cleaning products they regularly use, and to determine whether we can reduce these exposures by using green cleaning products instead.

JESN: Why focus on Latina women specifically?

AA: Latina women may face higher exposures as more than 80% of professional household cleaners in California are Latina. (CBCRP).

ER: So, we recruited 50 Latina women in Salinas and conducted home visits to monitor the air in their homes while they cleaned. During our first study visit, we asked them to use their regular products and go about their normal cleaning routines using the products they typically would use. Participants wore scientific air monitoring backpacks with specialized filters designed to capture chemicals from the air in the women’s breathing zones.

Scientific air monitoring backpacks used to collect breathing zone air samples

JESN: There are lots of variables that might affect the exposure data collected. How did you track these?

AA: We inventoried and photographed the products participants used, measuring their weights before and after use, and recorded how participants used them and what habits they displayed while cleaning, such as using proper ventilation. After collecting data this first visit, we gave them a full set of locally purchased and affordable green cleaning alternatives, asked them to use those for a whole week, and then we returned and collected a new set of data while these green products were being used.

JESN: This is clearly a unique study. Who did you turn to for data processing?

ER: Samples were analyzed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to see what chemicals of concern were in the air the women were breathing while they used conventional cleaning products, and to note the extent to which these exposures decreased by switching to green cleaning products.

Air pumps and sampling equipment being calibrated by environmental sample technicians using a scientific protocol

The Results

JESN: What did you end up finding?

AA: Combined, participants used 205 different cleaning products. Though these products may contain hundreds or even thousands of chemicals in total, we limited our analysis to focus specifically on potential carcinogens and hormone disruptors, chemicals that we worry might impact women’s health.

JESN: What did you observe when participants switched to green cleaning products?

ER: When participants switched from their conventional cleaning products to green cleaning products, the levels of 17 different harmful chemicals decreased. Some key chemicals of concern that decreased are acetaldehyde (down 38%), 1,4-dioxane (down 49%) and chloroform (down 86%). However, levels of fragrance compounds were high in both visits and some fragrance levels were even higher with the green products.

These graphs depict significant decreases in key chemicals of concern.

JESN: It’s encouraging to see so many chemicals of concern decreasing just by switching to green cleaning products. Based on the findings, what advice would you give to the general public?

AA: We highly recommend switching from conventional products to green products, and we encourage you to choose unscented products as much as possible. We also recommend opening doors and windows to improve ventilation while cleaning, and using microfiber cloths, as they can be more effective in wiping dirt and germs away.

Low chemical replacement products provided to participants during the second visit.

What Does This Mean for the Latinx Community?

JESN: What are some of the implications of this study for the Latinx community?

ER: Salinas is a city filled with hardworking families, primarily of Latinx origin. In Latinx culture, house cleaning is an extremely common task in everyday life and is usually done by women. Since domestic work is also a common job for Latina women, Latina women are at increased risk of exposure to the chemicals in cleaning products and the potential long term health effects that go with them. The LUCIR study was conducted in Salinas, with 100% of the participants being Latina women. So we specifically tested the exposure of Latina women in our community, and the results were astonishing to me.

AA: These madres, hijas, and tias are facing exposure to chemicals from their cleaning products, products they use every day. But these exposures can easily be reduced by being more conscious of the products that we buy. It is concerning to learn that exposure to certain chemicals in commonly used cleaning products might put us at an increased risk of health issues.

Youth researchers processing environmental samples. (Summer 2019)

Our Experience and Spreading Our Message

JESN: Can you tell me more about the process behind the scenes and the next steps? Once you had findings, how did you work to return them to the community? 

ER: After the results came back, our team began brainstorming ways to spread our findings. We held meetings biweekly to learn how to actively engage in our community to gain support for our study. We came up with ideas all while learning about advocacy skills, leadership, and policy making. We did mini workshops including elevator pitches and we came up with many possible community outreach projects. We also invited guest speakers to speak to us about how to translate our findings into policy making and how to convey our message clearly in interviews.

AA: Over the summer of 2020, we contracted with a local group called Artists Ink to create animated PSAs to share our findings. We learned how to use programs like Adobe Draw, Audacity, and Adobe Animate to develop and voice our own characters. It was an amazing experience to be able to learn about animation, voice acting, Foley artistry, and storyboarding, all while creating something that will spread an important message to our community. At the end of the summer, with the help of the team at Artists Ink, we successfully created three videos with unique and relatable stories. We want to help inspire a healthier Salinas, and a healthier world for our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, daughters and sisters. Now we need your help to spread our message!

Resources:

A screenshot from our PSA series, showing how harmful chemicals from everyday cleaning products can get into the air we breathe.

This project was funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program. Special thanks to Principal Investigator Dr. Kim Harley.

Mr. Nolan is the Community Science Manager at CERCH. He has undergraduate degrees in Sociology and Gender Studies, graduated from UC Berkeley with a Masters of Public Health in 2016 and has been an applied researcher at the university from 2016 to the present. He specializes in investigating and addressing social determinants of health disparities associated with racism, classism, sexism and geography. He focuses on engaging youth and community members in exploring how determinants of health and structural violence overlap to influence environmental justice, with an emphasis on diversifying STEM fields and harnessing local assets through community based participatory research (CBPR). This approach helps expand local capacity and engages community members in co-designing more relevant and effective health interventions. He leads the CHAMACOS Youth Council and the Richmond Youth Council and coordinates community outreach projects, including organizational partnerships, trainings, presentations, workshops, website development and multimedia including a Spanish Radio Novella series, a bilingual animated PSA mini-series, a mural and a zine.

Andrea Alonzo is a high school senior in Salinas, CA and a Student Research Assistant for the LUCIR study. They want to study Political Science and return to their hometown after studying to create and change policies that help the community that raised her. She values the wellbeing of her community members and enjoys using their creative freedom to create PSAs, advocacy plans, and presentations in order to educate others.

Edwin Rodriguez is a high school senior in Salinas, CA, and Student Research Assistant for the LUCIR study. He has experience with policy-making, having worked with Luis Alejo in the Young Supervisors Program, aiming to create a healthier Salinas by inspiring youth involvement in policy making. They aspire to become an educator and scientist, teaching the functions of the environment, how we affect it and how it affects us, especially in agricultural communities such as Salinas, where many farm worker families are exposed to pesticides. They value public safety and educating others to inspire change.

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