Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Industrial pollution | Bearing the body burden: Environmental toxins and women's health

Bearing the body burden: Environmental toxins and women's health

By Laxmi Murthy

Women's physiology and role in society make them bear the brunt of environmental toxins. There has been an alarming rise in endometriosis and cancers amongst women worldwide. A major source of the problem could literally be in the air

Excruciating pain during menstruation; excessive bleeding; painful intercourse; infertility and bowel problems are a daily reality for women living with endometriosis, a puzzling disease in which the tissue of the endometrium (uterine lining) of some women is found outside the uterus – on the ovaries, intestines, bowels. This tissue responds to cyclical hormonal stimulation, bleeds and build up into nodules and cysts. W omen with endometriosis have a higher rate of allergies, asthma and chemical sensitivities and are also at higher risk for autoimmune diseases and certain cancers. Yet, t his debilitating disease affecting an estimated 89 million women and girls around the world is still comparatively unheard of.

The mention of cancer, however, is sufficient to alarm. More disturbing is the rise in all types of cancer, especially breast cancer, over the last two decades.

While the exact causes of endometriosis and cancer are not yet known, a major source of the problem could literally be in the air. Several environmental pollutants including pesticides like DDT, PCBs and dioxin have the capacity to mimic and bind to oestrogen receptors. 'Xenoestrogens' or oestrogen-like substances foreign to the human body are endocrine disruptors. E levated levels of oestrogen can promote cell proliferation which can lead to breast cancer and endometriosis.

The response of the medical establishment has been to cut, radiate or chemically eliminate tumours and surrounding organs, leading to an alarming rise in hysterectomies, ovarectomies (removal of ovaries) and mastectomies (removal of breasts). Women are increasingly going through painful, costly and useless surgeries in the name of ‘treatment’, desperate to eliminate pain, or more important, continue to live. The propaganda of medical ‘miracles’ in the shape of new drugs and sophisticated surgical techniques, overlooks the root causes of these diseases, and the possibility that these tragic deaths can be averted.

Women may be exposed to endocrine disruptors through environmental contamination from industrial or agricultural processes; dietary exposures from consuming contaminated fish or vegetables; in the workplace; traffic exhaust or drugs and contraceptives containing synthetic oestrogens.

To take one example, dioxin is a toxic byproduct of industrial processes that involve chlorine or incineration of chlorine-containing substances, such as PVC (commonly known as ‘vinyl’) plastics. Dioxins formed during incineration of waste are released into the air and contaminate the entire food chain, from crops, to livestock to humans. Disturbingly, the Endometriosis Association’s research registry shows that endometriosis is starting at a younger age and is more severe than in the past – a possible result of a rising ‘body burden’ level of dioxins and other endocrine disruptors which also contribute to the early onset of puberty.

Female physiology poses increased risk

Women's physiology and role in society makes them bear the brunt of environmental toxins -- the so-called ‘body burden’ or the amount of synthetic chemicals found in the human body.

Physiological differences between women and men, including differences in hormonal structure, mean that women are susceptible to different health effects from exposure to toxins. Certain tissues in a woman's body contain receptors that latch onto oestrogen molecules. When oestrogen molecules are bound to the receptors, the cells of these ‘target tissues’ are stimulated to proliferate. The cells of the vagina, the uterus and the breast all contain large numbers of oestrogen receptors, and grow in the presence of oestrogen. Xenoestrogens bind to these receptors and disrupt the natural balance.

Because they derive from oil, x enoestrogens are fat-soluble and tend to accumulate in areas of the body where fat content is high -- for example breasts, and may reside in the body for long periods of time. Storage of toxins in fat is a problem of greater importance for women because of their higher percentage of body fat and the hormonal changes that occur during menarche, menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause. These can mobilise internal stores of pollutants many years after the initial exposure.

Bone loss is accelerated during menopause at which time bone mass may decrease by 2-3% per year for several years. During this period, stored toxins may be released and cause damage to the nervous system and other organs. This problem is worsened when a woman’s diet is calcium-deficient because this deficiency accelerates mineral release from bone. Lead is the most serious of several hazardous pollutants that affect bone, especially in countries like India that continue to use leaded petrol.

In pregnant women, endocrine disruptors and harmful chemicals like lead and mercury can be passed through the placenta, exposing the foetus, or through breast-feeding, exposing the infant to significant levels of these chemicals. The tragic outcome of years of spraying endosulphan –an extremely hazardous pesticide—on cashew plantations in Kerala is seen in the severely deformed babies. Besides chemicals, radiation hazards have a deep impact on the health of women and their babies. Almost half the women in villages around the Jadugoda uranium mine report disrupted menstruation, miscarriages and babies with partially formed skulls, missing eyes or toes and fused fingers. Alarmingly high levels of dioxin in breast milk portend an unhealthy future for infants of exposed mothers living near waste dumps where dioxin levels are high.

Low on the social ladder: High on health risk

Because of their social location, women are more likely than men to have early and prolonged exposure to water-borne pollutants, pollutants in the food chain, and household pollutants.

Women are disproportionately clustered at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder – be it domestic labour, cooking and cleaning for the family, urban middle- class women exposed to toxic cleaning agents, and women at the bottom rungs exposed to wood-smoke from chulhas. Indoor air pollution, for instance, affects women, children and the elderly more since they sit close to polluting wood-stoves for hours, in smoke-filled, windowless rooms. Outside the home, women farm labourers are exposed to contamination from extremely dangerous pesticides and weed-killers. A large percentage of women work in the informal sector, a sector more vulnerable to contract, non-unionised labour, and at high risk of occupational hazards.

Why the silence?

Given that 50% of the world’s population is disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution, why has so little been said, researched or done about it? Why has the potential of endocrine disruptors to wreak havoc with women’s health not been considered sooner?

One reason for the evidence of health hazards not coming to light earlier is located in the non-specific nature of oestrogenicity itself. Scientists cannot predict whether a chemical can attach to oestrogen receptors purely from the shape of the molecule.

Yet, the more obvious reasons are not hard to find: sexism in the medical system. The differential access of women and men to health care contributes to the invisibility of ill health among women. Socially and emotionally conditioned to put themselves last, women do not acknowledge their ill-health, ignore their symptoms and usually access health care when it is too late. Even when ill-health is diagnosed, limited family incomes are often not ‘wasted’ on getting treatment for women, who are not valued as primary earners. The scientific establishment is not free from bias, and the lack of research on the differential impact of pollution on women’s health has not been given the attention it deserves. In India, the almost obsessive emphasis on women’s reproductive role has meant research focused on contraceptives or pregnancy-related issues. Women as workers, female adolescents and elderly women have been marginalised by researchers.

Questions about women's health and pollution, until recently, were not examined, not taken seriously, and not followed up. In consequence, women's health has suffered and the opportunity for early detection of environmental degradation was often forfeited. Women community activists and researchers in the medical and environmental fields are increasingly effective in raising these issues and insisting that women's experiences of pollution be disaggregated from generalised studies of pollution impacts.

Also contributing to the cover-up about the hazards of certain chemicals is the role of vested commercial interests, and the link between industry and ill-health. While Zeneca Pharmaceuticals (as AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation) is one of the principal sponsors of the Breast Cancer Awareness month in the US, the company earned millions of dollars from sales of insecticides, including the carcinogenic herbicide acetochlor until it sold its worldwide acetochlor herbicide business to Dow Agrosciences LLC! It also earns millions each year marketing tamoxifen, the world's 'best-selling' drug to treat breast cancer, despite indications that tamoxifen might harm the liver and an FDA warning about uterine cancer.

Where do we go from here?

Except for dramatic pollution incidents, such as oil spills or chemical factory explosions, the effects of pollution are often subtle and only slowly apparent; deterioration in environmental quality more typically shows up in small ways in the ordinary, lived environment. As a result of women's social location as managers of the ordinary domestic environment, they are also typically the first to notice the effects of pollution. As a result, everywhere in the world, women are now in the forefront of grassroots environmental organising.

Decision-making tools of risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis developed in the 1970s to bridge the gap between uncertain science and the political need for decision-making to limit harm are increasingly being found lacking in predicting harm in complex ecological and human systems. Nowhere is this more apparent than women's health. The burden of scientific proof has posed a monumental barrier in the campaign to protect the environment and health. The 'Precautionary Principle' might be a more useful concept than risk assessment. Instead of asking what level of harm (or level of exposure to toxic substances) is acceptable, the precautionary principle asks: how much contamination can be avoided? What are the alternatives to this product or process, and are they safer? Is this activity even necessary? The precautionary principle focuses on options and solutions rather than risk. It is perhaps this approach that can help us safeguard our health and that of our children, and also reclaim our ‘stolen futures’.

(Laxmi Murthy is the Editor of India Resource Centre and a Delhi-based freelance journalist specialising in development and gender. She has been active in the women's movement and other progressive movements)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004