Parabens: A Scare Story?

By Kezang Choki Tshering, Class of 2022

Majors: Biochemistry and Psychology
Project: Digital PSA on Contaminants of Emerging Concern
Nominating faculty: Lisa Lebduska

PSA on Parabens

It all started when Professor Lebduska assigned each of us a partner from the Problems in Environmental Chemistry course for our final project in my Writing in Professional Contexts course. The goal was to encourage interaction between students in the two courses so that we could learn how to communicate scientific information to the public. I was assigned to work with Ophelia McGrail, an Environmental Chemistry student. My job was to create a digital Public Service Announcement (PSA) about her research on parabens, which are Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs). The case of parabens is an example of how scientific information can be miscommunicated to the public who need this information the most. My project included filming an interview with Ophelia about her research on parabens. The first step was to write a proposal persuading the reader that I was prepared to create a digital PSA about parabens. After receiving feedback on the proposal, I planned and created the video.

General chemical structure of parabens by Pngbot, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

The Purpose of My Project

CECs are a rising global concern whose effects on human health and the environment are not yet completely understood. Parabens are a group of compounds that classify as CECs. They are some of the most commonly used preservatives in pharmaceuticals, food products, and personal care products. Despite their widespread use, most people do not know about the potential negative effects of parabens. For example, parabens were awarded the ‘nonallergen of the year’ in 2019. Several sources on the internet also claim that the fear of parabens is unsubstantiated and that parabens are safe.

However, research says otherwise. Parabens are potential endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Chronic toxicity studies on parabens show a wide range of health problems associated with parabens detected in human tissues and bodily fluids. Parabens are also an environmental concern with low levels detected ubiquitously in wastewater, rivers, and soil.

Savvy customers and their buying power will ultimately influence what will be produced in the market. There is a need to persuade the public that parabens are not safe for use. Awareness programs focusing on the potential benefits of banning parabens could convince them to act on it. Therefore, public service announcements (PSAs) specifically tailored to the audience can be a useful tool in persuading consumers to stop buying products with parabens.

The Creative Process

The writing process was most time-consuming and perhaps most rewarding eventually. For a strong project proposal and a compelling script, I had to research CECs, parabens, mass communication techniques, and persuasion techniques. The writing process tested my ability to synthesize complex scientific material and communicate it clearly according to the audience. The rigorous process of multiple peer reviews and critiques from Professor Lebduska enabled me to resolve several of my issues with writing and become a better storyteller.

As for the PSA itself, I had to pull in my connections to help me with it. I worked with several people on the PSA without whom this project would not have been successful. Ophelia graciously agreed to an interview scene which added credibility to the PSA. Cody Mills, an English and Education major, became the narrator for my PSA, and an excellent one at that. I knew that my video editing skills were amateur at best, so I asked a film student and a dear friend, Vu Do for help. I had to work around everyone’s busy schedules which pushed me to maximize my interpersonal and communication skills. Although it was challenging to work with multiple people on the PSA, to have people willing to help me was a fortune itself.

The process of creating a digital PSA proved to be more resource-intensive than I had imagined. Several minor hurdles occurred which required me to change course and divert from my original plan. For example, I had initially planned to do an informational PSA on what research says about parabens, but I changed it to a persuasive PSA instead. However, I was able to get through them with persistence and a lot of help from people.

The Takeaway

This project was an incredible learning process. Not only have I learned so much about project management, writing, and video editing, but I have also learned a great deal about CECs and parabens. I have also learned to appreciate the value of effective communication and team play. This project allowed me the opportunity to integrate and connect both my majors in one project, which is what the liberal arts education at Wheaton is all about!

Communication skills play a pivotal role in making scientific knowledge accessible to the public which is crucial in acquiring funding and implementing policies. Overall, this project was a meaningful experience for me where I realized how crucial communication skills are in relaying our knowledge to laypeople and making it accessible so that we can make a real impact on our community.