Yooyoung Ko

Mother's Nature

project overview

This was a 5 week research project touching on a wicked problem to create a ripple that directed towards a possible solution. My focus was on BPA in children and baby products. BPA in products is a red light due to its estrogenic behavior, and newborns are more likely to have negative health influences. The big question I had throughout the project was who actually defined 'safe'.

research implications

  • Consumers trust what they are told to be safe, as safe.

  • The trend in the U.S. is 'safe until proven otherwise'.

  • When a new chemical is introduced, the products containing it are already out in the market.

  • Safety regulations do not cover the vast amount of different untested chemicals.

  • Safety dictation of all products is a repetitive cycle.

    • Step 1 : Researchers find toxins in product
    • Step 2 : Consumer awareness rises
    • Step 3 : Government modifies regulations
    • Step 4 : Manufacturer modifies chemical component
    • Step 5 : Back to Step 1

proposed solution

In order to get people to doubt the government’s supposedly safe regulations, people should be intelligent. The people need to know more, have enough individual knowledge to decide for themselves and make it harder for the government to gain trust. Environmental groups try to raise awareness to create change. However, their audiences are usually limited to environmentalists and not to the general public, limiting their impact and the speed in which change occurs.

I found an opportunity to connect an environmental group with a larger audience by having them partner with a toy manufacturing company with similar values in environmental and health issues. The two would then form another partnership or more like a sponsorship with a childcare facility and provide safe toys and other products to the facility. For the three groups I chose Environmental Working GroupLittle Sapling Toys, and the Children's School at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Validated as safe, Little Sapling Toys would provide toys to the childcare facility initially as a test trial. The childcare facility would then be able to market the facility as ‘safe’ becoming potential customers to make further purchases. EWG will be able to reach out to a wider audience in a positive spotlight which would bring more awareness and aid through donations.

design research

My initial research focused on "Mutant Makers" digging into how contaminants in commercial products led to the mutation of frogs, which in most cases pointed towards pollution of waterways. Reading through related materials, I grouped the insights into categories, and the biggest issue seemed to be the high levels of BPA (Bisphenol A) in commercial products.

What was interesting was that products that claimed to be "BPA Free" were not at all safer, because most had other undocumented chemicals causing similar estrogenic activity. Also, the tests conducted to claim a product as "BPA Free" were not based on everyday use, and indeed did show unacceptable levels of BPA when tested after exposure to microwave radiation, moist heat, and UV light - all in amounts that those products would receive in everyday use.

It was funny to see how BPA had been the danger flag for so long, but consumers were being fooled either by the replacement of BPA with other chemicals that were not yet declared toxic or by the falsely proven claims that the products were free of BPA.

As I was searching for what was safe and what was not, I realized that I had been fooled like every other consumer. I had been accepting what was told to me as safe, as actually being safe, and the same for unsafe. This direction of thought made me dig deeper into the steps in which a material or chemical was declared safe.

It was soon clear to me that when a new chemical was introduced, the products containing it were already out in the market and would be long until any regulations followed. Safety regulations did not cover the vast amount of different untested chemicals. The trend in the U.S. was indeed : Safe until proven otherwise.


There is no reason for the manufacturers to spend money trying to create the safest product, they would only need to be under the regulation limits. Also, there are just too many untested and therefore unrestricted chemicals out there that manufacturers can use until a regulation is made.

That was not the end. Even when regulations were made, they were negotiated results between the industry and the government. The industries would lobby to delay or weaken necessary governmental actions, and would even voluntarily lower targeted chemical components - a smart action to prevent more stringent regulations.

This made me curious of other products or materials that had been considered or are still considered toxic, and whether or not they had similar patterns.

I wasn't surprised that patterns were identical in the lead, tobacco, and soda industry. All industries lobbied for their cause and the lead industry even claimed that the problem was not with the paint, but with the "uneducated Negro and Puerto Rican" parents who "failed" to stop children from placing their fingers and toys in their mouths.

I started to wonder what the problem was, why people had so much trust to what the government ruled as 'safe', when people actually started to care, and if people just didn't care because they thought today's regulations made everything seem unsafe.