Sex and Sustainability: Why Reproductive and Environmental Health Matters

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AHA Advocacy Intern Mallory Kruper reports on the effects of harmful chemicals in the environment that affect women’s reproductive health—and what we as individuals can do to fix the problem.


On July 11, 2013 I attended the fifth session of the Sex and Politics in the Capital City Intern Advocacy Series, hosted by InterAction. This particular session, Sex, Synthetics & Sustainability: Linking Reproductive and Environmental Health & Justice, was presented by the Sierra Club, Reproductive Health Technologies Project, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and looked at the links between environmental issues, such as exposure to chemicals, and how they impact reproductive health.

The session began with a presentation by the Sierra Club who drew attention to the environmental and health related problems caused by coal, and particularly coal ash, a substance produced during the mining process. Exposure to coal ash is an issue because it contains mercury and hexavalent chromium, two toxins that are particularly harmful to pregnant women and babies because of their effects on developing nervous systems. These chemicals are able to target reproductive health because of the endocrine system, which often recognizes these chemicals as estrogen and lets them into the body. Despite the health risks caused by these toxins, the disposal of coal ash remains unregulated and is often disposed of in areas where is can leak into drinking water. A recent study of 35 random cities across the U.S. found that 31 of the 35 cities studied had dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, highlighting just how widespread contamination from the chemical may be.

Second to present was the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, who outlined common types of chemicals and the problems they can cause. The three main chemicals outlined were BPA, found in plastic water bottles and receipt paper, phthalates, found in plastics and scented items, and PBDEs, a flame-retardant often found in common household items like rugs and sofas. Exposure to these commonly found chemicals has been proven to lead to an increased risk of infertility or miscarriage, and reproductive health related cancers. While the three chemicals outlined are commonly used, there are over 84,000 chemicals used in commerce. Of these 84,000, only 200 have been tested for safety and only 4 are limited by the government. But luckily, while federal law has done little to regulate the use of potentially harmful chemicals, many states have started considering new toxic chemical policies this year.

The presentation then transitioned into a discussion by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health of how we can look at these environmental and health issues through a socioeconomic lens in order to analyze how the use of chemicals may affect environment and reproductive justice. For example, there are many ways to reduce exposure to chemicals, such as shopping at specialty, organic grocery stores, not heating food in plastic containers, using ‘green’ cleaning supplies, and cleaning often to avoid the number of chemicals brought into the house on shoes and clothing. But, unfortunately the people, notably women of color, who are most likely to be regularly exposed to toxins, either at their jobs or at home, are the same people less likely to be able to buy the ‘safer’ options. This same demographic is also less likely to have access to proper healthcare, meaning they may not be able to treat any side effects caused by exposure to chemicals.

While some of the population has the resources to at least lessen their exposure to harmful chemicals, this is not true for everyone. In order to truly reduce the health-related impact of chemical exposure, either at home or at work, and therefore achieve a greater sense environmental justice, the only real option is to limit and even prohibit the use of harmful chemicals. The presenting organizations urge the government to review the outdated and overall inadequate laws regarding the use of chemicals in commerce, and do what is best for the health and wellbeing of all Americans.