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Reproductive Health and Environmental Dangers

May 17, 2010
Credit: iStockphoto/Nicholas Homrich

Credit: iStockphoto/Nicholas Homrich

The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast has spurred a renewal of environmental awareness. Although, sadly, it takes a catastrophe of this magnitude to bring attention to the matter on a grand scale, educators and activists are constantly trying to alert the public to the frightening abuses of nature we commit every day and the effects these have on our bodies.  Several weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress (CAP)  titled “Tackling Toxics: Reforming Chemical Policy and Improving Reproductive Health”.  Due to privacy laws that heavily favor manufacturing companies, unregulated amounts of harmful chemicals exist in our food and the products we use daily, often without our knowledge. The overexposure to some of these toxins  has led to fertility and other reproductive health problems in both men and women.  Increasing rates of certain deformities and other health problems in newborns are also traced to copious amounts of toxic substances we imbibe daily.

Bisphenol A (BPA), perhaps the most well known of these toxins due to recent press, is a chemical present in plastics goods from water bottles to infants’ toys.  A hormone disruptor, BPA alters our bodies’ natural hormone balance necessary for healthy reproduction. The leader of the panel discussion informed us that if tested, everyone in the room would show levels of BPA in his or her blood.

CAP published a short fact sheet with information from the paper “Reproductive Roulette: Declining Reproductive Health, Dangerous Chemicals, and a New Way Forward”. The facts were terrifying, especially the results of tests on ten newborn umbilical cords that detected a total of 287 industrial chemicals. I was also glad to see an article addressing this subject specifically as it pertains to women of color. CAP’s article addressed toxic exposure of predominantly Asian and Asian American women working in nail salons, but I immediately thought of female farm workers, who are predominantly Latina. Exposed to chemicals through the pesticides in the fields, these women run incredible risks in order to work a job that is ranked among the most hazardous in the country. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures “safe” pesticide exposure based on the body mass of a 154-pound male. It comes as no surprise, then, that the EPA estimates that 10,000- 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among United States agricultural workers.  They do not even attempt to measure the poisonings that go undiagnosed because people cannot afford medical care.

The panel was very informative and included Dana Ginn Paredes from Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. ACRJ’s publication “Looking Both Ways: Women’s Lives at the Crossroads of Reproductive Justice and Climate Justice” was a fantastic read for anyone interested in the subject. (I must also say that it is beautifully printed as well; a rarity for non-profit publications.) The booklet revisits Louisiana Rep. John LaBruzzo’s proposal to sterilize women “having babies they [can] not take care of” instead of tackling the cataclysmic environmental effects of Hurricane Katrina on the state. Control over women’s bodies never strays too far from the government’s mindset, even in times of environmental crisis.

One would think that government officials, especially those so vocally anti-choice, would make transparency for chemical companies a priority, preventing pregnant women, potentially pregnant women, and babies from ingesting chemicals that may harm them or their ability to reproduce. Unfortunately, this is not the case and many chemical companies enjoy such legal protection that the names of the chemicals themselves are redacted (kept secret) in all official documents. Women’s bodies have faced some enemies in the past, but unnamed toxic chemicals infiltrating their every day lives? It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie.

(This talk only addressed domestic environmental effects in America, but since people around the world are exposed to similar if not greater amounts of toxic substances daily, either through waste from other countries, trash in greater quantities in closer proximity, or other factors, it is easy to surmise that the situation for them is much more dire.)

The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals compiled a helpful list of comprehensive information sources. Among them, I found the following sites the most informative:

Women’s Health and Environment Initiative

Silent Spring Initiative

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment

This post is part of a series leading up to the Women Deliver conference (www.womendeliver.org), a global meeting on maternal and reproductive health and the advancement of women and girls.

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