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Monitoring Your Personal Environment with Wearable Technology

“The dose makes the poison” is a maxim of toxicology. The phrase is attributed to Paracelsus, a true Renaissance Man and founder of the field who lived more than 500 years ago, long before the industrial, chemical/pharmaceutical, and technological revolutions.   In today’s society, we are exposed to various chemical substances on a daily basis. Some of those chemicals may be harmless and some may be harmful. Many of the chemicals we experience have none of the so-called “onion properties” – – you could be exposed and never know it. A recent USA Today article highlighted a new wearable technology that can detect the various chemical substances encountered in daily life. The technology has the potential to change how we understand and control individual exposures to potentially harmful substances.

Ed Baig’s October 16, 2015 article, found here, chronicles his experience with the wearable wristband technology during an August week in New York City. Baig discovered he was exposed to at least 16 different hazardous chemicals that week. The wearable wristband in the article is sold by MyExposome, was developed by scientists at Oregon State University, and is being used for research by organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund. “Everyone is exposed to thousands of chemicals every day,” the MyExposome website notes, and those chemicals “are a natural part of our environment and the vast majority of them are beneficial or benign . . . But not all of them.” The MyExposome band is a seemingly simple silicone wristband that tests for more than 1,400 different chemicals. Unlike traditional personal exposure monitoring equipment it is lightweight, does not require pumps, or any electrical equipment.

 

The line between a toxic and non-toxic dose of a substance can be narrow, wide, or even unknown.

Wearable technology is developing at a rapid pace, and is providing users with a tremendous amount of personal data: the number steps taken, heart rate, body temperature, sleep patterns, calories burned, etc…. Using wearable technology to identify, and possibly monitor chemical exposure has the potential to change how we can understand, monitor, and control individual exposures. Aside from providing interesting information that a person can use to modify some lifestyle choices, the technology could change workplace practices and environments to help prevent harmful exposures (and injuries) in the workplace.

Wearable technology that measures chemical exposures could also impact the future of toxic tort litigation. Two common issues in most toxic tort cases is whether there was an exposure to a particular substance, and was the dose experienced sufficient to cause the alleged injury.The point of Paracelsus’ adage is that any substance can cause harm to the human body if it is experienced in sufficient quantities: if you take two aspirin your headache may go away, but if you take a whole bottle, you may not wake up. Water, oxygen, and salt all have a level that can be harmful to humans.  The line between a toxic and non-toxic dose of a substance can be narrow, wide, or even unknown.

It is also interesting to note that just as the medical and scientific communities’ understanding of what substances are harmful at what dose has evolved over time, the word “toxic” has evolved slightly as well. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 5th Edition (1947) defines “toxic” as pertaining to poison, or poisonous. Whereas Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition (2008) defines “toxic” as extremely harsh, malicious or harmful. Of course, the word “toxic” really hit the mainstream when Britney Spears released her song “Toxic” in 2003.

Understanding what chemicals a person is being exposed to, when, and how much is a fascinating next step in wearable technology. The impact of that technology has the potential to reach well beyond satisfying individual curiosities.

© 2017 Schiff Hardin LLP

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Schiff Hardin's diverse environmental practice advises clients engaged in a wide variety of industries and commercial endeavors such as electric generation, natural gas distribution and production, chemical manufacturing, auto and auto parts manufacturing, consumer goods manufacturing, real estate development and investments by financial institutions and equity investors.

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