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INSIGHT: What If We Had a Fitbit for Chemical Exposures?

Nov. 4, 2019, 9:00 AM

Today, you can monitor any number of health indicators using readily available apps, tools, and devices. From counting steps to measuring your heart rate and sleep patterns, it seems that there is no limit to what is trackable with technology. Take the example of Fitbits—in the 10 years since they’ve been on the market, they have revolutionized how people track daily wellness.

There’s a clear reason for the ubiquity of these devices: Consumers want personalized information. In fact, the booming global market for digital health self-monitoring devices is projected to reach $72.9 billion by 2020.

And people are looking inward too. Today, individuals can learn about their genetic makeup and ancestry by simply sending a saliva sample for analysis for about $100–$200.

But genetics and daily lifestyle alone don’t provide the full health picture. What about the chemicals you’re exposed to during your daily routine?

Based on a new analysis of the demand for such technology, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) predicts this could be the next frontier in the health self-monitoring revolution—with consumers willing to pay upwards of $450 for this novel technology. And it has the promise to provide major benefits for public health, by filling a gap in our severely limited understanding of chemical exposures.

In the Dark on Chemical Exposure

Chemicals make up the material backbone of products in commerce—from couches and carpets to clothes and cleaning products. Yet this ubiquity comes with its downsides, as chemicals ranging from fragrances to flame retardants and pesticides can find their way into our environment and ultimately end up in our water, land, and air—and in our bodies.

Unfortunately, scientists are not sure of the exact harm that this is causing given the lack of data on daily chemical exposures. Many might be surprised to learn that we have human exposure data on less than 4% of the roughly half-million chemicals in commerce. What we do know is that exposure to certain chemical substances have been linked to specific adverse health impacts, including reproductive harm, cancers, disruption of normal hormone activity, and impaired neurological development in children.

Without better information on exactly which chemicals we are exposed to every day, individuals are left in the dark—and decision makers are handicapped in their ability to unlock protections needed to protect the public from exposure to harmful chemicals.

Disrupting the Status Quo

Now, a diverse group of emerging technologies—called personal chemical exposure monitors (PCEMs)—have the potential to make the invisible visible, providing critical information that could change the status quo. These range from simple wearable devices (like chemical-detecting wristbands) to home delivered kits that require the user to collect a biological sample for analysis.

While technological limitations and cost barriers have slowed the widespread adoption of PCEMs thus far, a new study on the market demand for these technologies shows significant opportunity.

Demonstrating Enormous Market Potential

To better understand the market potential and activate a network interested in PCEMs, EDF conducted a consumer survey and interviewed leading experts from 23andMe, Google, and more. The first-of-its-kind landscape analysis found a clear market for such technologies among general consumers through a survey of over 600 individuals:

  • Consumers were willing to pay $459 for a device that includes all surveyed premium features.
  • Nearly 40 hypothetical devices had a willingness to pay in the $100 to $300 range—a price range reflective of the actual price of other personal monitoring devices on the market today.
  • The features that consumers valued the most were receiving 1) data on a large number of chemicals, 2) immediate results, and 3) results that provide information on both level of exposure and whether such exposure is of concern.

Beyond the consumer market, industrial hygiene and labor experts pointed to opportunities for PCEMs to break through existing challenges in traditional workplace monitoring as well as ideal features of wearable workplace monitoring devices to improve comfort and alert workers to real-time exposures.

Looking Forward

In a world where everyone had a “Fitbit for chemical exposures,” we could finally answer questions like: Which chemicals are we exposed to everyday? What are the biggest sources? And what interventions reduce harmful exposures? Ultimately, such technology could allow us to work toward better informed decisions to prevent everyday exposures to hazardous chemicals.

EDF’s study provides some of the first quantitative evidence of consumer demand for these devices. Now it’s time for investors, technology developers, and other entrepreneurs to help realize this vision—by spurring innovation in PCEM technologies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Lindsay McCormick is a program manager for the Health Program at Environmental Defense Fund. In this position, she promotes public health protection through efforts to reduce hazardous chemicals, with particular focus on effective implementation of the revised Toxic Substances Control Act, emerging chemical exposure monitoring technologies, and strategies to reduce lead in drinking water. Prior to joining EDF, she was an Environmental Health Fellow at the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection.