The Dangers of Being a Stern College for Women Student

By: Shayna Dessau  |  March 13, 2022

By Shayna Dessau            

The life of a student at Stern College for Women (SCW) can be exciting and adventurous. Various possible encounters with genotoxic elements, however, come along with such freedoms. Potential daily encounters include, but are not limited to, exposure to cell phone radiation, Ethidium Bromide in the labs, NYC’s air pollution, and the traditional mass menorah lighting during Chanukah in Brookdale Residence Hall. By analyzing the possible elements that can alter the genome of a SCW student, one can become aware of their hazardous surroundings and discover ways to limit exposure, ultimately advocating for change.

While SCW students love to stay connected with their peers, cellular devices can pose toxic risks. For cellular devices to communicate with one another, they send out energy waves in Radiofrequency (RF) radiation. A buccal micronucleus assay, which surveys cells to identify micronuclei resulting from DNA damage, observed the genotoxic effects of RF radiation emitted from smartphones. This study found that the hand, head, and neck absorb about 40% of the radiation emitted from cellular devices. Additionally, significantly more micronuclei were observed in high mobile phone users ( >10 hours a week for five years) in comparison to low mobile phone users (<3 hours a week for five years), proving DNA damage. It is not surprising that, according to a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2021, 97% of Americans own cellular devices. Additionally, smartphones were identified as the most commonly used communication device in the United States. Given this statistic, it is likely that almost all SCW students possess a mobile device. On average, students use their phones for about 25 – 30 hours a week, which, according to the 2016 study, puts them at high risk for DNA damage due to RF radiation. While this topic of RF radiation is controversial and is still being tested, it is crucial for students to be aware of the possibilities of genotoxicity, and they should take proper precautions such as limiting usage and using headphones when possible to limit direct phone-to-skin contact.

The science labs at SCW are equipped with useful scientific materials to conduct experiments; however, some of these materials, such as InstaStain cards containing the chemical Ethidium Bromide (EtBr), can present considerable risks. EtBr is a nucleic acid stain often used in DNA gel electrophoresis due to its intercalating and fluorescent agents. An intercalating agent is a property of a compound that breaks DNA bonds and inserts itself into the planer bases of the DNA. EtBr breaks these bonds and attaches its fluorescent compound to the DNA, allowing for visualization under ultraviolet lights. Due to the intercalating agent, this compound is designated as a mutagen, as it can break double bonds and alter DNA if inhaled or comes in contact with skin. An in vivo comet assay study (a test for DNA damage) performed in 2021 studied the effects of EtBr on rabbit corneal epithelial cells. The study showed an increased comet tail length of cells exposed to EtBr, as opposed to the control group, proving DNA damage. While scientists are still conducting experiments to ascertain the degree of risk of EtBr, students need to take proper precautions such as wearing masks and gloves and using the compound in well-ventilated areas.

While SCW prides itself on its prime college location in Midtown Manhattan, this location tends to have high levels of pollution and poor air quality, which can contribute  to genotoxic effects. Due to the concentrated amount of inhabitants and dense vehicle emissions, NYC has high levels of Particulate Matter in the air. Particulate Matter at 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) is any small particle in the atmosphere that can be inhaled and penetrate deep lung tissue. PM2.5 can cause genotoxic effects that may lead to cancer and heart disease. A 2011 human lung bronchial epithelial comet assay study observed an increase in comet tail length in cells exposed to PM2.5, proving DNA damage. A 2020 study confirmed that bronchial epithelial cells exposed to varying levels of PM2.5, containing free radicals, organic chemicals, and transition metals, can increase reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the blood. Increased ROS levels can cause oxidative stress, inflammatory response, and genotoxicity. SCW students inevitably are exposed to the NYC air, which contains high levels of PM2.5, a possible genotoxic element. Therefore, while students of SCW enjoy their time in NYC, they should be aware of the risks of NYC air pollution and take necessary precautions.

The holiday of Chanukah in early December gathers many SCW students to light the menorah in the designated front lounge of the Brookdale Residence building. This year, there were over 100 menorahs in this room, with nine candles each (on the eighth night of Chanukah) being lit simultaneously throughout the night. Many students light Chanukah candles made from paraffin wax and sit in the unventilated room for hours at a time where pollutants can accumulate. Paraffin wax is made from petroleum and is composed of hydrocarbon molecules. When the wax is burned, the candle releases various potentially toxic elements into the air, including smoke, PM2.5, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, and soot. Each candle contributes to the atmospheric conditions in the room. A comparative study done in 2013 found that the toluene and benzene emissions from burning paraffin wax candles can increase to about the same level as vehicle emissions. Toluene and benzene have known carcinogenic effects, specifically leukemia and thyroid cancer. An early in vivo lymphocyte study proved that lymphocytes have a difficult time metabolizing benzene, and therefore, genotoxicity such as sister chromatid exchange, micronuclei, and DNA double-strand breaks can occur. In most environmental conditions, these elements are so minute in volume that it is infrequent to cause genotoxicity; however, in the Brookdale front lounge on Chanukah, there is limited ventilation in the room filled with hundreds of candles that can put students at a higher risk. While more studies are being conducted, students should take precautions, such as reducing the use of paraffin wax candles, and the school should provide better ventilation in a larger location to lower the risk of exposure.

Stern College for Women students are exposed to various genotoxic elements throughout their day. Cell phone radiation, air pollution, ethidium bromide, and menorah lighting are just a few of the risks in our environment. Students should be aware of the risks they face every day and take necessary precautions. It is imperative that while enjoying their time in Stern, students must be mindful of the hazards, develop solutions to these concerns, and make the necessary changes.

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