A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. Exposure to hazardous substances and wastes undermines this right and puts women, children, and other vulnerable groups at risk of human rights abuses. Throughout their lives, women are exposed to numerous hazardous chemicals that can harm them and our future generations by transfer across the placenta during fetal development and through breast milk to the nursing infant.
The scale of this problem is significant. For example, mercury in a woman’s body can transfer to her fetus during pregnancy, exposing the developing child to this brain damaging neurotoxin. IPEN recently conducted a global study of mercury in women of childbearing age. Hair samples of 1044 women in 25 countries revealed levels of mercury associated with the onset of fetal neurological damage in 55% of the global sample of women. Mercury is only one example and the reality is that today, children are born “pre-polluted” with hundreds of hazardous chemicals in their bodies.
A growing number of women understands this toxic threat. At a meeting of community residents and health professionals, Vi Waghiyi gently starts by introducing herself as a daughter, mother, and grandmother from the Arctic Indigenous community of St. Lawrence Island. Her calm cadence steadily builds to describe a current reality faced by women everywhere. “We are being exposed to toxic chemicals without our consent in our homes, in our workplaces, our children in schools and playgrounds, and where we live… In 2015, seven of us in my family, including myself, had cancer at the same time.” These plain-spoken facts justify the importance of women’s knowledge and understanding of crucial environmental issues and their impact on women and children’s health in building a sustainable future.
One international agreement that should address the relationship between women and chemical safety is the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), coordinated by UN Environment. But there is a long way to go to fulfill SAICM’s chemical safety mission.
When SAICM emerged in 2006, it was ahead of its time. Ministers of Environment from more than 100 countries adopted a declaration which committed governments to, “work towards effective and efficient governance of chemicals management by means of transparency, public participation and accountability involving all sectors of society, in particular striving for the equal participation of women in chemicals management.” SAICM’s Overarching Policy Strategy notes that risk reduction measures need to be improved, “to prevent the adverse effects of chemicals on the health of children, pregnant women, fertile populations, the elderly, the poor, workers and other vulnerable groups and susceptible environments.”
Actual implementation of these commitments has lagged and now SAICM stands at a crossroads as delegates try to figure out what to do when the agreement expires in 2020. More than 100 countries have agreed that delegates should develop “measurable objectives in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” for the new chemicals framework. This includes Sustainable Development Goal #5 which commits governments to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Gender equality is a fundamental human right and to achieve it, women must be empowered to realize a toxics-free future. But women cannot be empowered if they are being poisoned by toxic substances and if their children are born pre-polluted. Gender equality cannot be achieved if exposures to hazardous chemicals leave women suffering from cancer, chronic illnesses, infertility, and damage to their nervous systems. Furthermore, the health of girls and women is critical to reducing child disabilities and mortality, and to improving the health of families and communities.
Looking ahead, it is clear that concrete measures to address women and chemical safety in the new global chemical framework need to be agreed upon, then actually implemented. These should include creation of a multi-stakeholder women and chemical safety working group to develop recommendations for actions. One important task is to connect women and chemical safety to SAICM’s issues of global concern. For example, hazardous chemicals in electronics is a global issue of concern, but work under SAICM has not really touched upon health impacts in women workers who often comprise the majority of the workforce in this chemically-intensive industry.
In 2020 when the new chemical framework is launched, ministers – and particularly female ministers – of environment, health, agriculture and labor should make a ministerial declaration on women and chemical safety. This declaration should commit governments to specific actions and affirm the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Donors, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations can help ensure all this happens by requiring gender-related activities in all chemicals, wastes, and agriculture projects and making all gender-disaggregated data publicly available. A step towards achieving this goal was made at the third session of the UN Environment Assembly in 2017 when UN Environment and IPEN signed a partnership agreement with the goal of contributing to the work on gender and chemicals through a focus on women. Upcoming activities will include a report on women leaders fighting toxic chemical pollution worldwide. But this is just a start.
Advancing the relationship between women and chemical safety should include investigating gender-specific routes of chemical exposure, biomonitoring studies, exposing harmful chemicals in women’s and children’s products, mapping priority chemical hotspots and hazardous waste sites that affect the health of women and children, educating parents and caregivers about the exposure pathways of harmful chemicals, raising public awareness about environmental violence and the precautionary principle, training women to become public speakers, and advocating at the national, regional and international levels for gender equity policies in relation to chemicals.
Vi Waghiyi has worked for years to push these kinds of activities forward. As she closes her presentation, she looks directly into the eyes of audience and quietly sums up why this issue is so urgent for women everywhere: “We’ve lost so many people due to health disparities never seen before in our people… We’re being contaminated without our consent. It’s environmental violence.”
IPEN is a global network of public interest NGOs working together for a world in which toxic chemicals are no longer produced or used in ways that harm human health and the environment. You can find them at www.ipen.org or twitter: @toxicsfree