Women's Environmental Health - January/ February 2010
by Katie Silberman
Many of us in the environmental health field have our professional lives, in which we know all about BPA and parabens, and then our messy, trying-our-best personal ones. Women are often on the frontlines of this conflict. (Could my child be clutching that plastic, battery toy he adores above all else? And what have I been smearing on my face all these years?) Women also bear the brunt of many environmental health impacts.
The first piece in this issue is testimony I gave on SEHN’s behalf to the National Institutes of Health, Office of Research on Women's Health, when they came to town soliciting ideas for their research agenda for the next 12 years. My testimony outlines some of what is known about the connections between specific chemicals and women's health, but there's more to be said.
Women still make less money than men for equivalent work, and older women tend to be poorer than older men. For the vast majority of diseases, outcomes are worse for people lower on the socioeconomic ladder. In January, New Scientist reported, in an article entitled "Poor Neighborhoods Can Kill," that death rates among black women diagnosed with breast cancer are 37 percent higher than for whites, and in Chicago the difference is an astonishing 68 percent. Clearly, the interplay between environmental contaminants, women's bodies, and socio-economic circumstances merits close scrutiny.
Also in this issue:
Networker co-editor Nancy Myers reviews Disinfectant Overkill, a recent report by Women’s Voices for the Earth exposing the links between the overuse of disinfectant chemicals and serious health impacts such as asthma, immune system problems, hormone imbalance, and potential reduced fertility.
Alice Shabecoff, co-author with her husband Philip (formerly the chief environmental correspondent for The New York Times) of Poisoned Profits, adds a steaming indictment of the household products industry and offers a back-to-basics chart of substitutes for unnecessary, toxic products.
Stacy Malkan tells how she came to write Not Just a Pretty Face, her expose of the cosmetics industry, and how the beauty culture may be changing accordingly.
Finally, we link to a personal essay I wrote, published on the website of Mothering Magazine. Its topic, fertility impairment, is among the increasing afflictions of our modern age that may be tied to environmental contaminants.
National Institutes of Health - Office of Research on Women's Health
Public Hearing: September 21, 2009, Providence, RI.
Testimony of Katherine Silberman, Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify. My name is Katherine Silberman and I am the Associate Director of a national non-profit organization, the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), with an office here in Providence.
SEHN is a grassroots-oriented think tank for the environmental movement, and a leader of the successful movement to reform environmental and public health policy from the community level up, based on the precautionary principle. SEHN is a communal think tank; our ideas come through work with real people working on real problems, and with government bodies committed to their role as protectors of the public's well-being. We shape the ideas into usable forms as policies, arguments, and information; continue the dialog and learning with our many partners; and help implement the ideas in the world.
I am here today to urge the Office of Research on Women's Health to consider women's environmental health as a major research focus. Of the priorities outlined by ORWH for the next several years -- including normal processes, aging, and emerging diseases -- environmental health affects each one. Indeed, environmental factors are causally linked to disease across a women's entire life cycle, from conception until death. Due to time constraints I will discuss only a few examples, following the timeline of a woman's life cycle.
I. Reproductive health
Human life itself depends on women's ability to bear healthy children. We know that birth defects are a major cause of miscarriage and fetal death, and that nearly half of all pregnancies today result in the loss of the embryo or fetus, often very early in pregnancy. Many of these losses are due to problems that would have resulted in birth defects.
The cause of most birth defects is unknown, and many seem to be caused by some combination of genes and environment. But some direct correlations have been drawn between specific environmental chemicals and specific outcomes. Endocrine disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol-A can cause hypospadias in baby boys, a condition that has doubled in incidence in 20 years. A number of studies have linked pregnant women's pesticide exposure to birth defects, including fetal death. Perhaps most alarmingly, recent studies have shown that certain chemical exposures in utero can actually change the genetic makeup of the baby, and can be passed down to that baby's descendants -- meaning that a single exposure might harm a family's health for generations to come.
The number of children with asthma in the US has more than doubled since 1980. Although genetic factors are involved, environmental factors are almost certainly responsible for such dramatic increases in incidence rates.
In the U.S., asthma is most common in African-American children living in urban areas. Ozone and fine particle pollution from diesel engine exhaust have been causally linked to childhood asthma, and kids growing up along streets with heavy truck traffic are more likely to have asthma-related respiratory symptoms.
Pesticide exposure has also been liked to asthma. A recent study found that infants exposed to herbicides and pesticides before age one were much more likely to develop early persistent asthma. Childhood asthma causes tremendous suffering for kids and families, expense for families and society, and causes children to miss school and parents to miss work.
B. Neurological disorders
Childhood brain disorders such as learning disabilities, behavioral and emotional disorders, and autism have all been liked to environmental exposures. The developing brain is extraordinarily complex, and seems to be affected by some combination of genetic, environmental and social factors. But several environmental chemicals have been causally linked to neurological damage, including lead, mercury, perchlorate, solvents, and some pesticides.
Particularly concerning is the effect of environmental exposures on the developing brains of fetuses, babies and children. Much is unknown about brain science, but we do know that the developing brain peri-natally and during early childhood is exquisitely sensitive to chemical disruption, and that certain times of exposure are particularly dangerous. A chemical that could have no lasting effect on an adult brain could irreparably damage the brain of a developing fetus or toddler.
Almost every one of us now knows a woman who has had breast cancer. The rise in breast cancer incidence rates in recent years points to contributing environmental factors. We do know that well over 200 chemicals have been identified as mammary carcinogens by international agencies. Specific chemicals that have been linked to breast cancer include several pesticides, bisphenol-A, PAHs (which are products of combustion), dioxins, phthalates, and parabens. These latter two may be of particular concern because of their ubiquity in women's personal care products, such as lotion and makeup, that women spread on their bodies every day.
Alzheimer's seems to be caused by the interaction of genetic, environmental and social factors. Chemicals of concern include lead and other heavy metals, PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants, pesticides, and endocrine disruptors. But scientific evidence points to a more disturbing trend: Alzheimer's disease seems to be linked to other serious diseases of modern times. Diabetes, obesity, hypertension, elevated blood lipids and metabolic syndrome -- like Alzheimer's -- appear to stem from inflammation and excessive oxidative stress.
My organization, the Science and Environmental Health Network, recently released a report entitled "Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging: With a Closer Look at Alzheimer's & Parkinson's Diseases." The report calls this group of diseases the "Western Disease Cluster," and explains how environmental factors are contributing to rising incidence rates and what policymakers can do to reverse the trends.
In the interest of brevity, my remarks today have been limited to spotlighting specific chemicals that are causally linked to specific diseases across the female life cycle. Unfortunately, though, such one-to-one causation is not how any of us live in our daily lives. Instead, we are constantly exposed to thousands of chemicals -- and perhaps most crucially, to the combined effects of several chemicals at once. Through a combination of the lack of sufficient regulatory laws and the slow pace of science, the health effects of most of these chemicals are largely unknown. The health effects of the combination of dozens or even hundreds of chemicals in our bodies -- which is the situation many of us are in right now -- are unfathomable. What we do know is that environmental links to women's diseases are real, the science is catching up, and meanwhile the human, financial and societal costs of these diseases are immense. These reasons are sufficient incentive to take action now to reverse these trends.
I am speaking today in my professional capacity as Associate Director of a national advocacy organization. But I am also speaking as a mother, daughter and pregnant woman who has experienced, within my own family, infertility, pregnancy loss, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and other diseases that affect so many women's lives. In both capacities, I urgently petition the ORWH to consider environmental factors in women's health, and to take action to protect women and girls from developing diseases that we know can be preventable. In coming years you will be able to look back proudly and rightly claim your mantle as a leader in the field of environmental health science, knowing that you prevented suffering in women across the country.
Scientific references for this piece can be found on the website of the Collaborative on Health and Environment (CHE). Our thanks to CHE for this valuable research.
Disinfectant Overkill: How Too Clean May Be Hazardous to Our Health
A report by Women's Voices for the Earth
Disinfectant Overkill is aimed at a female audience. Although everybody is subjected to germ-killing messages through things like commercials and the gym etiquette that requires disinfecting workout machines after use, women may be more vulnerable to both the myths and dangers of the overuse of disinfectants.
The report reminds us that women still do more than 70 percent of the housework, buy most of the household and personal care products, and spend more time at home, exposed to any chemicals used there. Many chemicals accumulate in fat and women "generally have a higher percentage of fat tissue than men." Most important, women's bodies are the first environment for the next generation.
The report makes the important distinction between cleaning and disinfecting. Disinfecting is for hospitals and other special situations. What most homes and bodies need is cleaning. Cleaning removes microbes; disinfecting kills them.
Overuse of disinfectants presents two dangers: toxicity to humans and other living things—see Alice Shabecoff's essay—and the development of resistant strains of bacteria. The report covers the science of toxicity and antibacterial resistance in lay language and describes in detail some of the most problematic germ killers, especially triclosan and triclocarban.
Disinfectant Overkill doesn't say much about hand sanitizers, which have been hyped since the report came out last fall. The active ingredient in most sanitizers is ethyl alcohol, which is relatively harmless to humans and the environment but also to many viruses (it does kill bacteria). The same goes for the more toxic antibacterials like triclosan and chlorine. They are antibacterial, not antiviral.
So those bottles of hand sanitizer that have shown up everywhere since the H1N1 scare are worse than useless. They may fail to destroy viruses and, by offering false security, they may displace the best protections—covering coughs and sneezes and washing hands thoroughly and often.
The report provides a room-by-room chart of safe methods for household cleaning. Put this together with Alice’s chart of substitutes for toxic household products and make your life cheaper, simpler, and safer.
Download the report here.
Alice Shabecoff (Co-author of Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children. Random House 2008)
Disinfectant Overkill: How Too Clean May Be Hazardous to Our Health
Household cleaning products have grown into a major industry, costing consumers $13.5 billion a year. What's in these products is a mystery. Manufacturers are not required by law or regulation to tell us the ingredients. A major battle is underway in Congress over a bill that would require full disclosure labeling, opposed by the companies which prefer some limited and voluntary listings, perhaps on a website.
When you discover the ingredients lurking in these products, you understand why the manufacturers hide them behind the veil of "trade secrets." Volumes of scientific research prove that many man-made chemicals concocted on a base of petroleum can reduce fertility, trigger cancer, and intensify asthma. The most disturbing news is that a pregnant woman's exposure may harm her fetus, affecting the child's brain, behavior, and other body systems.
A few examples: The chemicals in mothballs can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer. Glycol ethers, one of the chemicals commonly found in various household cleaners, are industrial solvents –used, for example, to clean gunk off machinery and computer chips. If a pregnant woman is exposed, even at low levels, her baby may suffer birth defects or damage to his developing testicles or central nervous system.
It's a surprise to discover that the commonly used Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser releases 143 air contaminants. Seven (including chloroform, benzene, and formaldehyde) can cause cancer, others are linked to asthma and other allergies as well as harm to our reproductive and nervous systems. This discovery comes courtesy of independent lab tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization.
Air fresheners turn out to be among the most toxic products in our homes. The chemical analysis of one of the leading sellers, sporting the scent of a "Hawaiian breeze," found this aerosol released 89 air contaminants. Its label disclosed only three. Of all the products tested, this "freshener" came in third place for polluting the air with ingredients linked to cancer, allergies, and reproductive harm; if the exposed woman is pregnant, the ingredients could do damage to the fetal brain and nervous system. The plug-in variety contains "the most highly volatile chemical in the average home." Even air fresheners labeled "natural" contain harmful ingredients. "Natural" is a term without any standards behind it.
Dryer sheets, another winner of the most-toxic-substance award, coat fabric with a thin film of artificial perfumes whose chemical components are linked to liver damage and cancer. The anti-bacterial chemical named triclosan, incorporated into household cleaners as well as plastic shoes, toothpaste, and underwear, disrupts our (and our children’s) hormone system. When combined with chlorinated water, it can transmute into the deadly chemical dioxin. (It’s outlawed in many countries, including China.)
We grab these cleaning products off the store shelves, convinced they work. Years of advertising have told us so. With our overworked schedules, we need to make it easy to get that sparkly clean. The news is that it's even easier to make a few basic products ourselves that work as well if not even better. We don't need a commercial product. Nor does this mean hunting down some obscure purveyor of odd brews. Every ingredient is right there on the drugstore or supermarket shelves. It's actually fun to concoct these cleaning alternatives and rewarding to see the results. And there’s so much less to worry about if a toddler comes across one of these products.
Next revelation: We don't need a dedicated product for each separate component of our house, from the shower tiles to the floors to the underwear. Think of the storage space that's freed up by slimming down from 23 individual cleaners to 4 basic non-food ingredients. Is there a woman in America who couldn't use more storage space? Nor is there anyone who couldn't think of a good use for the money saved. The commercial products in this chart cost a total of $59.36.
Basic ingredients to have on hand:
Washing soda, borax, vegetable-based/liquid castile soap (found in the laundry aisle), hydrogen peroxide (drug store), distilled white vinegar, lemons, olive oil (buy cheap variety), baking soda (from your grocery store). Buy a couple of spray bottles at the hardware or drug store.
|Air freshener. candle||Acetaldehyde, ethylacetate, BHT 1, propylene glycol, 1,3-dichloro-2-propanol, phthalates||6.66||Simmer cloves or cinnamon stick or vanilla in water for 5 minutes|
|Air freshener, plug-in||Formaldehyde, methylene chloride, benzene, propane||2.19||Ditto, or set out a bowl of dried flower petals|
|All purpose cleaning powder||Formaldehyde, toluene, acetaldehyde, chloroform, benzene, & lots more chemicals||14 oz @ 2.89||Make a paste of equal parts baking soda or borax & warm water or white vinegar|
|Dryer sheets||Alpha-terpineol, benzyl- and ethyl-acetate, pentane, phthalates, chloroform, & lots more||80 @ 5.99||Dryer ball, reusable|
|Furniture polish||Nitrobenzene, morpholine||17.7 oz @ 9.49||¼ c olive oil, ¼ c white vinegar, 2 t lemon juice|
|Glass/window cleaner||Ammonia, butyl cellosolve, d-Limonene, glycol ethers, isobutane, triclosan, monoethanolamene||26 oz @ 3.79||¼ cup white vinegar in 1 qt warm water, add a squirt of lemon for scent|
|Laundry detergent||Phthalates, monoethanolamene, alkyl- and nonyl-phenol ethoxylates, aluminum hydroxide||100 oz @ 10.99||Add 1/c c borax or ½ cup baking soda to phosphate-free liquid Soak clothes in hydrogen peroxide for ½ hour to whiten|
|Mothballs||Naphthalene, para-dichlorobenzene||14 oz @ 5.19||Wet clean (uses no perchloroethylene), then store|
|Shower scrubbing bubbles||Glycol ethers, sodium lauryl sulfates||22 oz @ 3.49||Borax & water, applied with a scrubbing pad|
|Tile & grout cleaner||Glycol ethers, monoethanolamine, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids||22 oz @ 5.49||Mix one part borax, one part baking soda, one part vinegar to make a paste|
|Toilet bowl cleaner||Fragrance/phthalates, sulfuric acid, lye, ammonia, naphthalene, muriatic acid, lye||4 oz @ 3.19||Borax; or baking soda & vinegar; or flat cola; let sit for 1 hr|
P.S. My own favorite recipe for my least favorite task, cleaning oven racks: Put them in your bathtub, cover with water plus 1/2 cup dishwasher detergent, soak a few hours or overnight. Amazing.
Hold a house party with your friends with a green cleaning party kit from Women's Voices for the Earth. This is lots more fun than 'tupperware' parties used to be, and a great deal better for your family and the environment. The kit is made and sold by
Sources for additional recipes:
Information on ingredients in other products in your home:
www.HealthyStuff.org: a searchable database of 900 consumer goods, from cars, pet products to children's car seats, back-to-school items, and women's handbags.
www.cosmeticsdatabase.com, for eye-opening database of ingredients in cosmetics and other personal care products
Household Cleaning Products USA 2009, 35th edition, 2010, Kline Group.
Women's Voices for the Earth, Household Hazards, 2007.
Environmental Working Group, "Toxic Cleaner Fumes Could Contaminate California Classrooms," November 3, 2009
Natural Resources Defense Council, Clearing the Air: Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners, 2007
Association of Vermont Recyclers, Montpelier, VT, Recipes for Safe & Effective Cleaning, undated
I confess: I was a teenage make-up diva desperate to fit in. Each day I piled on the beauty products – skin creams, powders, eye products, hair gels, all topped off with a huge cloud of Aqua Net hair spray. I didn't give a single thought to the chemicals I was putting on my body.
Years later, while researching my book, I looked up the ingredients in my teen beauty routine and was shocked to discover that I had been exposing myself to 230 chemicals a day, many of them toxic, before even getting on the school bus!
So what's in this stuff we put on our bodies on a daily basis? In 2004, several nonprofit groups formed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to answer that question. Over the years we've analyzed hundreds of products at laboratories, and our partners at Environmental Working Group built the world’s largest database of chemicals in cosmetics (Skin Deep at www.safecosmetics.org).
The research paints a not-too-pretty picture: The vast majority of body-care products – lotions, deodorant, make-up, and even baby shampoos – contain chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, and other health problems that have become epidemic in recent decades.
In my book, I explain this research, and describe what happened when our group of breast cancer activists and environmentalists went knocking on the doors of the world's largest beauty companies, asking them to stop using chemicals linked to cancer.
As we were living the story – getting rejection letters from the big beauty companies that refused to change their products, even as we continued to expose their toxic secrets – I was writing the story that eventually became Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society, 2007).
There were plenty of ugly tales to tell – for example, how companies market their products with pink ribbons to show they care about breast cancer, yet refuse to remove carcinogens; and how the beauty industry is spending millions on lobbying to keep their products unregulated.
But now there is also a beautiful side to the story: the small businesses that are innovating wonderful, nontoxic products; the scientists who are developing green chemistry solutions; the legions of people who are making positive changes in their lives, rejecting the toxic status quo and demanding a cleaner environment in their homes, communities, and bodies.
I'll be honest, writing a book was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was like working two full-time jobs for two years (but only getting paid for only one), and having no room in life for anything else. It took me another two years to recover!
But just the other day, at the Teens Turning Green Summit, I saw why it was all worth it. I saw it in the eyes of the 12-year-old girl who approached me to tell me she is reading my book and thinks it's "awesome!" and in the face of the older woman who told me the book "opened up her whole life."
I share this story as a way of encouraging others to keep telling your own stories – to keep putting your fingers on the keyboard, keep making your music, growing your garden, conducting your studies, teaching the children, or whatever it is you do to raise consciousness in this world. The ripples go so much further than we could ever measure.
The light gets brighter with each person who starts asking questions and seeking answers. As I told the roomful of teenagers at the Summit, every one of them is already so far ahead of where I was at their age, so just think what they'll be able to achieve in the years ahead.
Stacy Malkan is co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. Buy the book at www.safecosmetics.org, and a portion of proceeds will benefit the campaign.
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