There is a toxin lurking in every household in America, and one chemist is racing to find a remedy.
Chemistry professor Rebecca Braslau, an organic chemist, has made it her mission to protect people and the environment from the problematic molecules called phthalates, which leach from aging plastic. This chemical can mimic hormones and cause health problems for people, especially children and particularly infant boys.
The daughter of an aerospace engineer father, Braslau was brought up in an upper-class neighborhood in Palos Verdes surrounded by science-minded people, but her personality as a child didn’t give any indication that she could hack it as a chemist. As a little girl, she often hid behind her mother’s leg. When her parents asked Braslau what color she wanted to paint her room, her answer was “black.” Concerned, they wondered if she needed therapy.
To Braslau, black was the majestic color of the stallions in the books she loved. When she was 13, Braslau’s parents wanted to do something special for her, so they bought her a young horse. Braslau says the gift brought about an important shift in her life.
Phthalates, which leach from aging plastic, can mimic hormones and cause health problems for people, especially children and particularly infant boys.“More than anything else, that is what changed me,” she says, a tear forming in the corner of her eye. Braslau went from being nearly bucked off the horse to riding bareback. Her personality changed from painfully shy to the confident person she is today.
“If I were still as shy, I couldn’t be a chemist,” she says, “I wouldn’t be able to collaborate, present my work, or teach classes.”
Speaking in chemistry
Braslau describes her mother as a polished woman who wanted the same for her daughter. She persuaded Braslau to get her ears pierced and gave her a pair of braided gold hoops, as well as encouraged her to take care of her appearance. Her mother didn’t want Braslau to become too nerdy when she went off to college, so the daughter agreed to take arts classes as well as science.
Braslau was taking her first college organic chemistry class when she became aware an earring was missing. But she noticed something interesting about the loss—she didn’t particularly care. And that’s when Braslau realized she had changed.
Phthalates are of a similar size and shape as some hormones, and can fool the endocrine-signaling pathways in the body.“I just didn’t have time anymore for drying my hair, putting in earrings, or wearing clothes that necessarily matched,” Braslau said with a laugh.
Braslau’s long, wild hair and comfortable duds testify to her continued love affair with chemistry. Starting in that class, she was bewitched by the riddles she saw in compounds, complex molecules, and reactions. “It’s like cartoons. People are drawing arrows and electrons are flying all over, but it made sense to me. They were speaking my language. I could think that way,” she says.
Mentor to young scientists
Braslau calls herself a workaholic. She spends long hours in her UC Santa Cruz office writing exams, preparing lesson plans, or catching up on the latest research. Braslau’s commitment to mentoring young scientists is evident on the walls of her office. Lining her bookshelves are photos of smiling students proudly holding diplomas, getting married, or working in the lab. Students drop in anytime, and Braslau holds extra study sessions on Saturday for those who need some help.
“I’ve never seen any other professor care as much as she does,” says Chad Higa, a graduate student who has been in Braslau’s group since 2013. “If I ever become a professor, I hope I’m like her.”
Annette Gardner, Braslau’s friend of more than three decades, says this dedication has characterized Braslau for her entire life. “In college, she was always looking after those of us who were scrambling,” says Gardner.
Braslau isn’t all work and no play. She recently took a scuba diving trip in Cuba. She is a regular attendee of Burning Man, where she makes elaborate full-body puppets out of glowing wire. Pictures in Braslau’s office show her wearing a dragon puppet that stretches the entire length of her outstretched arms, from head to tail.
Danger of phthalates
Many years ago Braslau stumbled on a question that confused her. She was working in a lab in Australia, studying marine natural products. As a chemist, Braslau was used to mixing things together to cause a chemical reaction, which forms new molecules. She then isolates the newly formed molecules to identify what they are.
While trying to isolate a molecule from a sea sponge, some of her experimental mixture accidentally splashed a piece of plastic lab tubing. So, unaware that the splash had contaminated her mixture, Braslau spent the next three days isolating a molecule from it and trying to identify a molecule she mistakenly thought came from the sponge. When she finally figured out that it was phthalate, she knew it had come from the plastic tubing. Her chance mistake would happen two more times in the following years. As a result, Braslau learned to easily identify phthalate. When it started becoming relevant in the literature she was reading, she was already familiar with the molecule.
As a polymer chemist, Braslau is a plastic-enthusiast of sorts. She keeps up on the literature regarding plastic, not only in the scientific sense, but also the social, cultural, and economic sense. Braslau regularly gives a talk titled “More Than One Word on Plastics” to audiences at Burning Man, conservation groups, or universities. The talk is about plastics in American culture. It explains what they are, how they changed the markets, and how our culture evolved around the rise of plastics.
In the 1920s, the fusion of phthalate ester-plasticizer with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) launched the boom of the plastics industry. Phthalates can turn PVC, a hard and brittle material, into a supple and flexible plastic. The more phthalates are used, the more flexible the material becomes. Now phthalates are found in PVC worldwide. They are responsible for bendy garden hoses, hospital IV bags, and that new-car smell. Nearly everything labeled with “vinyl” or the #3 recycling symbol contains phthalates. While PVC is the most common use for phthalates, they can also be found in other things like cosmetics, fragrances, and adhesives.
The problem with phthalates wasn’t initially recognized. As plastic ages, the phthalates leach out. Even brand- new plastic is leaching phthalates. It turns out phthalates are of a similar size and shape as some hormones, and can fool the endocrine-signaling pathways in the body. Phthalates are often called hormone mimickers or endocrine disruptors because they interfere with the endocrine system. Their ability to stand in for hormones can cause health problems, especially in young boys or pregnant women. For example, they can lower sperm count or cause birth defects in the male reproductive system. They’ve also been linked to diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
Phthalates are often called the “everywhere chemicals” because they are, well, everywhere. Yet sometimes they get confused with bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to make the polymer in a different type of plastic. Water bottles labeled “BPA free” may still contain phthalates.
Seeking a better way
When Braslau first began reading about these problems in the chemistry literature in the early 2000s, she had a realization. “I recognized that molecule,” she says, recalling the day she accidentally isolated phthalate from the plastic lab tubing.
She made it her mission to do something about the problem. She set out to make an alternative to phthalates that would retain its desired qualities without the negative health hazards. “I’m a trained synthetic chemist,” she says. “I’m not afraid to make new things, that’s what I was trained to do. I want to affect society. I want to do something that will help the world.”
Braslau sees plastic everywhere she goes.
“I’m not a chemophobe,” says Braslau as she sips from her plastic water bottle. But because of her awareness, she does take more precautions than most. She handles phthalate-laden grocery receipts (made of thermal paper, a special fine paper coated with a chemical that changes color when exposed to heat) as little as possible, and airs out products that have that “new plastic” smell.
Since the 1970s, when word about phthalate toxicity got out, environmentalists and consumer advocacy groups began to demand change. Braslau, a progressive at heart, chooses her battles carefully. She is a vegetarian because she says the environmental impact of eating fish and meat is too high. Yet she isn’t a\
vegan. She drives a car, but it is electric. She still uses plastics, yet recycles them. “You can’t do it all,” she says.
“If we can find a system that is inexpensive and can be scaled up safely, I would love to not have any more phthalates out there,” she says.
In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission began prohibiting U.S. companies from using plastic containing certain phthalates in baby toys and products that were intended for a baby’s mouth. Many companies voluntarily followed suit. Now the commission is proposing to ban more phthalates.
With expanding regulations and mounting pressure from consumers, plastics manufacturers are vying to commercialize alternative techniques. Chemists across the globe are hoping, as Braslau is, to design and patent new molecules that plasticize without the toxicity.
“It’s a competitive field that’s gaining a lot of interest,” says Rudy Wojtecki, a chemist for IBM. Braslau “is trying to ensure we have a sustainable PVC, and one that doesn’t show societal harm.”
Cheering the competition
What drives Braslau isn’t the idea of being the first to find a solution or the one who lands the patent. “I just want it to be out there and used,” she says. So, if that means her competitors reach the finish line first, Braslau will be cheering them on. “They’re making this thing called phthalate on the multimillion–ton scale per year, and all of it will eventually go into the environment. It will have problems for humans and all sorts of animals.”
Wojtecki says Braslau is on the right path, and he hopes to work more with her soon. The two scientists met at a meeting for a new chapter of the American Chemical Society in Monterey Bay.
“I’m not afraid to make new things, that’s what I was trained to do. I want to affect society. I want to do something that will help the world.” At the meeting, Wojtecki presented a slide show. “After the talk, (Braslau) came up to me and had my work all sketched out. She was asking me, ‘Did you think about this … or that … ?’ It was like the movie A Beautiful Mind, wow,” he says.
Braslau is holding the details of her progress close to the vest for now, but says, “We are trying to take something that looks and acts like one of these plasticizers and bond it so it can’t fall away.”
If Braslau’s technique works, the consumer won’t realize the plastic has changed. Yet the negative effects on health and environment could end.
With scientists in Spain, China, and Korea also making strides toward finding a solution, Braslau is hopeful that the threat to public health posed by phthalates will soon be a thing of the past.
“Sometimes I have dreams where I see electrons flying around me. You can’t actually see electrons, but I can in my dreams,” Braslau says, explaining that this chemistry challenge is constantly on her mind.
Then, folding her hands in her lap, she says, “But I think we are close.”
Teresa L. Carey (SciCom ’17) is a Science and Social Media News Fellow at PBS NewsHour, where she covers stories related to the ocean and environment. She lives in Reston, Virginia. @teresa_carey