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Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Impacts on Women's Health
Women and Chemicals is a subject of serious concern but unfortunately it has not been given adequate attention, mainly due to lack of comprehensive data over the impact of chemicals on women’s health. Men and women are differently exposed to different chemicals due to their occupation, environmental, and social factors. They have different gender roles and face different social determinants. Women also face different exposure routes and overall women are more susceptible to health harms from chemicals.
All of this is true for substances known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), EDCs are
"Exogenous agents that interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, metabolism, binding action, or elimination of natural blood-borne hormones that are present in the body and are responsible for homeostasis, reproduction and developmental processes. They are widely available in many consumer products such as personal care products, household cleaners, food, plastics and pesticides. They have been linked with many known health implications in women and children across the globe. They are known to cause adverse human health outcomes including alterations in sperm quality and fertility, abnormalities in sex organs, endometriosis, early puberty, altered nervous system function, immune function, certain cancers, respiratory problems, metabolic issues, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, growth, neurological and learning disabilities, and more."
The Strategic approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which is now the Global Framework on Chemicals, identified EDCs as an Emerging Policy Issue at the International Conference on Chemicals Management, ICCM 3 in 2012.
Women in different occupations can be exposed to EDCs at work. For example, women farmers, workers in industry, waste pickers, healthcare professionals, recyclers, and others all may face occupational exposures to EDCs. They can also be exposed to multiple EDCs in cosmetics (mercury, formaldehyde, parabens), sanitary napkins (phthalates, solvents), utensils (PFAS), textiles (PFAS, nonylphenol), personal care products (triclosan, BPA), paint (lead), and much more. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) biomonitoring data of non-persistent EDCs (parabens, phenols, and phthalates), show that women are frequently exposed to many chemicals found in personal care products, at higher levels than men, probably as a result of their greater use of such products. EDCs have been detected in human blood, urine, breast milk, amniotic fluid, and the umbilical cord.
EDC exposures are linked to reproductive disorders such as early puberty, infertility, abnormal cyclicity, premature ovarian failure/menopause, endometriosis, fibroids, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Exposure to the fetus can cause multiple reproductive and neurological disorders including cancer and congenital anomalies in offspring. Some EDCs affect male reproduction through lowering the sperm count.
Historically, most of the studies on health impacts of chemicals have been conducted on men. There is some data on impacts of certain chemicals on pregnant and lactating women (and hence the foetus) yet there is inadequate recognition and translation of the issue at the policy level.
Some may think that since women are exposed the most, are most vulnerable. and can transfer the chemicals to the next generation, they must be aware of the consequences. Sadly, this is not generally true. In fact, most of the products that women use is either not labelled correctly or are not readily available or affordable for them to make an informed choice. In most parts of the world, better and safer alternatives are not easily available.
It's time that we understand the gendered impacts of EDCs and work along with women to build a future free of toxic chemicals. Women’s vulnerabilities and needs should be understood and their roles should be promoted and enhanced at local, national, and regional levels to develop and implement policies which are responsive to women’s concerns.
Tripti Arora is the Gender Coordinator and South Asia Regional Coordinator for IPEN. She has been working for over eight years on waste and chemicals and their impacts on women’s health. She has completed her master’s degree in Environmental Management from India.