Reproductive Health

PregnancyThe estimated annual California state expenditure for just nine environmentally-related diseases (including childhood cancers, cervical, uterine, and ovarian cancers and birth defects) is more than billion.

Low-income, women of color often face the worst pollution and environmental health problems. Many live near polluting industries and serve in jobs such as manufacturing and domestic help that have high incidences of chemical exposure. However, this population is most likely to be left out of the toxics reform movement.

As consumers, we are unknowingly subjected to hundreds of chemicals every day. A new regulatory framework is needed that will protect communities from pollution and hazardous chemicals.

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Health Impacts of Chemicals and Pollution on Reproductive Health

Women in general serve as markers for environmental pollution through reduced fertility, irregular fetal development and increased rates of cancers, among other illnesses. They also have additional biological factors to consider when it comes to exposure to hazardous chemicals. Women, when pregnant, transfer their lifetime-accumulated toxins to their fetuses and later through breast milk. In some phases of life, shifting concentrations of hormones and changes in metabolic rates increase a woman’s susceptibility to exposure to chemical toxins.

Chemical Policy and Reproductive Health

On a daily basis women are unknowingly exposed to hazardous chemicals. Despite routine exposure to these chemicals, less than 10% of the estimated 80,000 chemicals currently on the market have undergone even minimal screening for their potential to cause health impacts to humans — prior to being sold. Many of these hazardous chemicals can be found in cosmetics, personal care products and household cleaners. A report by the Environmental Working Group, examined ingredients in more than 15,000 personal care products and found that one of every 100 products on the market contains known human carcinogens. Some of the personal care products often used by women of color contain cancer-causing agents. For example, 71% of hair dyes, tested contained coal tar, a known human carcinogen. Coal tar products are of great concern to African American women- as industry data reveal that 42% color their hair in a salon.

What is evident from these statistics is the need for a new regulatory framework that will protect impacted communities from pollution and hazardous chemicals. It is also evident that we must fundamentally change the way we manufacture consumer products. Furthermore, the need to educate and organize consumers is clear. Promoting an understanding of the impacts of the chemicals in everyday products that we use on our bodies and in our homes is crucial to changing the terms of the debate and creating strong popular support that will change consumer demand and behavior and increase the political will to fundamentally change how chemicals and personal care products are regulated.  We have seen that taking emerging science and getting it to communities and consumers can be effective in changing consumer behavior and engaging communities in the demand for safer products and comprehensive reform.

In California there are policy efforts currently underway which seek to do just that. A key example is the Green Chemistry Initiative which is being led by the Department of Toxic Substances. The goal of the Initiative is to shift away from the current model of cleaning up hazardous waste sites and managing pollution to solutions that prevent the use of toxic materials in the first place. A key indicator of whether this Initiative is successful is its ability to take early actions to eliminate the use of chemicals known to cause harm to human health, so called “bad actor” chemicals. A large number of these bad actor chemicals cause reproductive harm and pose specific health consequences for women. For example, dioxins which are by-products of chlorine-based industrial processes such as the bleaching of paper products and the incineration of hazardous waste. Prenatal exposure to dioxin can cause irreversible damage to the reproductive system of a fetus.

Along with California’s Green Chemistry Initiative there are presently more than fifteen bills in the state legislature that address the issue of toxins in consumer products. Several of which highlight products that are of particular interest to women including a bill seeking to take lead out of lipstick and several bills which address the issue of lead in children’s toys and products.

To date however, the powerful and credible voice of low-income women of color and reproductive health and justice advocates has been largely missing from the Green Chemistry Initiative and the toxics reform movement. This is due in part to lack of information on how toxicants influence reproductive health.  Another factor is that all of our work tends to occur in well defined silos that often obfuscate how these issues are connected and limits our opportunities to work together.

The need for these voices to be heard is imperative because of their disproportionate exposure to hazardous chemicals in their homes and workplaces and the effect many of these chemicals have on reproductive and women’s health. The lack of a reproductive justice frame in this ongoing debate may often make our movement building efforts more difficult and means that future recommendations and policy will most likely fail to prioritize reproductive health and justice issues and that the needs of low income and women of color are not reflected in policy proposals. In addition, Southern California, as compared to the northern area of the state does not have as strong a movement for change. Reproductive justice advocates in the Los Angeles area are not as aware of the current chemical policy debate and its impact on reproductive health.

Coalitions and Partnerships

One example of PSR-LA’s environmental and reproductive justice coalition-building work is its partnership with the Los Angeles Office of Women’s Health. PSR-LA worked with the Office to integrate the issue of environmental justice into their 2007 Women’s health policy summit. As part of the summit, five key policy recommendations were developed that centered on how to build alliances across sectors in order to elevate the connection between the environment and women’s health. For several years PSR-LA has also been working with the Women’s Foundation of California to develop strategies on how to advance the efforts of environmental justice and reproductive justice advocates.

On a local level, PSR-LA collaborates with the Los Angeles Reproductive Justice Coalition and has for the past several years partnered with them on their annual International Women’s Day event where women from across the city gather to learn and organize around women’s concerns, including environmental issues. PSR-LA has also hosted numerous workshops for area doctors and health professionals where they have highlighted the work of UCLA Professor Beate Ritz whose groundbreaking studies reveal the profound effect environmental pollution, specifically air pollution has on birth outcomes. These workshops have served as a starting point for training doctors to become spokespersons and become involved in our environmental health policy advocacy campaigns.

Black Women for Wellness and Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles are combining efforts to heighten awareness and participation of African American women on the intersection of environmental health and reproductive justice issues. This partnership stems from a desire to increase education, outreach and advocacy efforts in the African American community while increasing awareness among the environmental health advocates of the impacts to communities of color. African American women’s organizations are not linked into environmental health movements for a number of reasons including limited funding resources and the historical relationship with environmental threats. This has resulted in lack of vital health information shared with African American women’s organizations and more importantly, it has meant that the voice of African American women is often not at the policy table when developing environmental health and justice policies.

Current Efforts

As such, PSR-LA is seeking resources to build the voices of women and girls of color, to begin participating in California’s current and future chemical policy reform debate. Our organizing and training activities will incorporate an understanding of how low-income women and girls of color often are disproportionately impacted by exposure to hazardous chemicals. They also are the leaders in their community in addressing community problems particularly those that relate to the environment. Limited research exists on the health impacts of women, so PSR-LA seeks to reframe environmental health and justice issues by incorporating the experience and concerns of low-income women and girls, their families and communities.

PSR-LA is developing training sessions that will build the power of low-income women and girls of color by providing them with opportunities to increase their knowledge and skills related to reproductive health and justice, environmental health, chemical policy reform and policy advocacy. These training sessions will recruit and develop a cadre of women and girls who will have expertise in the above issues and will be able to use that expertise in their daily lives as well as in advocacy activities at the local and state-wide level.