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USU's Honors Program 44th Annual Last Lecture: Visualizing Environmental Toxins

Toxicity symbols used to mark hazardous chemicals.

On Wednesday, the Utah State University Honors Program held the 44th Annual Last Lecture – a tradition where a distinguished professor is nominated to give a talk as if it were their last presentation at USU.

Dr. Jennifer Peeples, an environmental communications scholar and a professor of communications at USU, delivered a talk on the ways in which we see – or don’t see -- toxicity in the environment and in ourselves.

“We live in a very toxic environment and many of us don’t recognize it. When we purchase things the question we ask is can we afford it?," she said. "We don’t think what are the environmental impacts of me using this product? We think of ease - we don’t think in terms of what is this doing to our physical health and the health of the environment, and it has gotten to the point where we have to.”

Peeples said the way we label substances that are toxic to ourselves and the environment is problematic.

“We need to be able to mark the things that are danger to us, and so we come up with things like the radiation symbol, and we come up with things like the biohazard symbol, but there are many things that are toxic to us that don’t get marked, and so we have a sense that because there's no symbol there, maybe that thing is safe for us. The other difficulty is that these symbols are not universal,” she said.

The toxicity of many chemicals used in the environment are understudied, Peeples saids. Proving toxicity is difficult because we can only test potentially harmful chemicals on laboratory animals, making it easy for companies to dismiss causality for the harm substances may cause to humans. 

Peeples is calling for change – changes in policy, marketing, and attitudes regarding toxic substances.