Students Lead Charge to Fight Pollutant in Cosmetics Widely Used by Women

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

After 18 months of fighting for clean air in Willowbrook, Illinois, Alexandra Collins thought that she could leave ethylene oxide behind. But then, she learned that the pollutant, known widely by scientists as EtO, is an ingredient in many cosmetics that women and girls use today.

“I saw the issue concerning one polluter was bigger than just my local community,” Collins, 17, said.

She combined her computer science skills and her advocacy work and partnered with a friend to create an app that reviews cosmetics products with the mission of keeping girls and women safe from the harms of EtO. Now, Collins said they are taking meetings with two natural products companies, First Aid Beauty and Sia Botanics, about potential partnerships.

Alexandra Collins created the app EtO-Free alongside friend Elyssa Chandler. It reviews products from mainstream cosmetic companies. (Courtesy)

Her environmental activism started at a town hall meeting in 2018 when she found out a local company, Sterigenics, had been releasing EtO into the air for 30 years. Collins was upset that her town was unknowingly breathing air that was infected with a chemical compound that causes breast cancer, fertility issues and brain and lung damage.

With the help of her older sister and some friends, she started Students Against Ethylene Oxide. Club members organized letter writing campaigns, attended rallies, educated students on the dangers of EtO and advocated at public hearings. Often the youngest in the room, these teens worked with government officials to help shut down the factory in September 2019.

As EtO continues to make headlines, Students Against Ethylene Oxide grew to chapters in 12 states and in Mexico and Guatemala. The Smyrna, Ga., chapter is lobbying to get another Sterigenics plant shut down using Collins’s advocacy methods.

“It has been a tremendous privilege working with the many young women who are a part of Students Against Ethylene Oxide,” said New Jersey chapter leader Mariah Lopez. “Hearing their individual stories and their drive to combat ethylene oxide near educational cohorts has motivated me to speak on the harmful impact of pollutants in my city.” The group focuses on letter-writing after an incident near the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where a major EtO gas leak occurred.

“Activists such as Alexandra and members of Students Against Ethylene Oxide understand that toxins such as EtO have a profound negative impact on women’s health in ways that do not impact men,” said Yvonne Mayer, a former school board member and leader of EtO Sleuths, a data-gathering organization that played a crucial role in shuttering the Willowbrook Sterigenics and helped to inform the town about how to hold Sterigenics liable for medical issues through medical monitoring.

The Stockholm Environmental Institute finds that women are disproportionately affected by pollution, including how chemicals affect a woman’s body and the cultural norms that keep women using products with toxic chemicals, like makeup.

The Students Against Ethylene Oxide club organized letter writing campaigns, attended rallies, educated students on the dangers of the pollutant EtO. (Courtesy)

Through the app Collins created alongside friend Elyssa Chandler, EtO-Free reviews products from mainstream cosmetic companies. Short videos created by Collins and club members provide in-depth reviews that assess the individual benefits and function of a product, as well as a full list of ingredients. Collins grades them according to wearability, textures, results and provides an overall analysis.

“Knowing that ethylene oxide is in these [cosmetics] as a part of the production process for those products really kind of highlights the differences within gender with the whole ethylene oxide problem,” Collins said.

The fight against ethylene oxide is not over, but Collins remains hopeful the EtO-free movement is a growing one. “I’m just trying to create a space for women to gain information about the ethylene oxide issue and how they, as consumers, can make choices to help support an environment that is healthy and safe.”

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Brynne O’Hare is a 14-year-old writer based in Chicago. She is passionate about creating change through literature, and is involved in the climate change initiative, mental health destigmatization, and the feminist movement.