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The Gender Bias of Toxicity: Women’s Disproportionate Chemical Burden “…People have the right to air, water food and land that will not sicken them”1
The proliferation of synthetic chemicals has allowed industry to profit while compromising the health of all bodies, be it that of the earth itself or those of people. However, this burden is not distributed equally. Women are disproportionally affected by chemical accumulation, both due to biological factors and their marginalized status in society. Resistance to this chemical bombardment has emerged, uniting environmentalists, feminists, community advocates and advocates for worker’s rights. Activists work to construct narratives that challenge corporate greed and dominance, using their own bodies as symbols and rallying calls. Their work truly aims to protect every body, recognizing the inherent ties between the external environment and human bodies. Environmentalists as a whole seek to show that the natural environment is not distinct from our own bodies. The body is greatly influenced by to the environment, and thus must be seen as a “hybrid network”. Indeed, common pronoun usage shows the disjunction that exists between bodies and the environment signified by the terms “my body” and “the environment”, as if there were a clear barrier.2 The notion that there is a barrier fosters a sense of dominance over nature, leading to practices detrimental not only to the earth, but to human health. Activists challenge this notion of dominance, reclaiming agency over their land and resources. They engage in struggles that call for policies that favor health, not profit. They fight for justice, accountability and the unalienable right to live out a healthy life. Throughout the exhibit, note this theme of connecting the physical environment and personal health. It is especially apparent in the case of chemical pollution. Given the enormous health implications arising from this type of pollution, chemical dumping is a social justice issue that must be rectified.
1 Nicholas Freudenberg, Not in Our Backyards! (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984) 41 2 Langston 148
The number of synthetic chemicals in the environment has increased drastically in the last century, putting humans into contact with an unprecedented number of chemicals. Since 1940 the production of these chemicals has grown exponentially with thousands of new chemicals being released every year3,. The increase in synthetic chemicals corresponds with the growing power and dominance of the petrochemical industry. Wartime chemicals originally used as agents of destruction were transformed into everyday products, from pesticides to plastics. The legacy of this widespread chemical proliferation is still being felt today, not only in the physical persistence of the chemicals, but also the creation of an economy reliant on cheap petrochemicals. Virtually all sectors of the economy have become reliant on these chemicals, from agriculture to clothing. Chemicals have become omnipresent, both in terms of their physical presence in the environment and the doctrine of progress they embody. Postwar growth of the chemical industry was largely cultural, fueled by a new “faith in science and technology.” Synthetic chemicals are viewed as a feat over nature, making the world safer and more hygienic.4 This mantra of progress and dominance stagnates research about the possible ill effects of these chemicals. Even as ill effects manifest themselves, regulatory action is slow and greatly resisted. The idea that scientific development can be harmful continues to challenge industrial development. However, as new research emerges, the problematic effects of synthetic chemicals cannot be ignored. A class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors has proven to be especially worrisome, both because of their chemical persistence in bodies, natural and human, as well as their function of disrupting hormonal functions. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are extremely persistent, meaning they are present in the environment long after they are initially introduced. Their low vapor pressures make them easily dispersed, further contributing to their proliferation.5 As Rachel Carson found in Silent Spring, these chemicals accumulate in flesh and are carried throughout the food chain, increasing in toxicity in a “chain of poisoning and death.”6 Thus, addition of chemicals to any ecosystem is a threat to all nearby life. In one study, 80% of
Freudenberg 21. 4 Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 121 5 Theo Colborn, vom Saal & Soto. “Developmental effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Wildlife and Humans” (Washington DC, World Wildlife Fund, Volume 101 1993) 380, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC1519860/pdf/envhper00375-0020.pdf 6 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring .(New York, Mariner Books, 1962) 84
tested streams had endocrine disruptors present.7 Indeed, given that most of the planet, and indeed our bodies, are composed of water, water quality and safety has tremendous implications. 8 The biological effects of endocrine disruptors are far reaching, and have profound effects on our health. Endocrine disrupters alter hormone receptors virtually changing how bodies function9. Because of this unique function, endocrine disruptors are not dependent on dosage. Even in extremely minute amounts, endocrine disruptors can drastically alter body function. Some even show greater effects at lower dosages10. This goes against traditional toxicity science that is contingent on poisons having a threshold, or an amount at which a chemical becomes harmful to life. For endocrine disruptors, there are no such thresholds and are harmful at any amount. Furthermore, because of the sheer number of chemicals present in public waterways, complex feedback loops are at play, multiplying the effects of hormone disruptors. Endocrine disrupting toxins are linked to a variety of disorders and diseases including increased incidence of breast, testicular and prostate cancer, decreases in sperm quantity and quality, increased incidence of reproductive tract defects, change in sex ratios due to declining proportion of males, neurological and behavioral disorders in children and impaired immune and thyroid function.11 Even as awareness about these chemicals grows, regulatory action does not. Rachel Carson’s study of pesticides in the 1960’s led her to conclude that future historians would wonder “how could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind.”12 However 50 years later, similar chemicals are still in use, even with a more extensive knowledge of their health effects. Economic and technological progress is hindering public health, placing the chemical burden on communities, not industry. This burden is disproportionately high for women. Endocrine disrupting chemicals accumulate in fat tissue. This is the reason Rachel Carson observed that DDT, a hormone disrupting pesticide she studied, became more toxic as it moved through the food chain. For this same reason, women are also more susceptible to chemical
7 Langston 119 8 Howard Frumkin, Urban Sprawl and Public Health (Washington DC: Island Press, 2004) 123 9 Colborn 379 10 Langston 5-6 11 Miriam Jacobs & Barbara Dinham, Silent Invaders, (New York, Pesticide Action Network, 2003) 180 12 Carson 8
accumulation than men. Women generally have a lower body weight than men, but a higher proportion of fat. Thus, a higher percentage of women’s body mass can accumulate chemicals, and these chemicals persist in the body longer because they are fat-soluble. This is especially apparent in breast tissue.13 Research has connected this chemical persistence to increasing rates of breast cancer. Furthermore, other pollution, such as chemicals leaching form plastics, has been shown to increase the rate of breast cancer cell multiplication.14 Since breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in women, chemicals have tremendous health implications on women’s health.15 Other pollution, such as chemicals leaching from plastics, has been shown to increase the rate of breast cancer cell multiplication.16 Organochlorines, the family of chemicals that make up pesticides such as DDT and have hormone disrupting functions are shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.17 Women absorb three times as much organochlorines than men.18 Atrazine, a common organochlorines pesticide found across the US in groundwater as well as on produce, is linked to increased rates of ovarian, vaginal and breast cancers, clearly affecting women’s health.19 Vaginal cancer usually found among women in their fifties has started appearing at increasing rates in women in their twenties. Studies linked these increased frequencies with livestock hormones that act as hormone disruptors, mimicking estrogen.20 Despite these clear correlations, little regulatory action has been taken, creating an invisible physical assault on women. Given women’s lack of representation in government and general lower economic status, the ability to rectify this assault is compromised. This health disparity due to biological inequalities has been observed in other research as well. Women are more biologically vulnerable to HIV infection and have a greater risk of contracting AIDS during sex than men. These biological factors in conjunction with social factors, such as greater likelihood to be forced into unprotected sex and lack of education, account for the fact that women compromise a greater percentage of patients with AIDS.21 Just
13 Jacobs 17 14 Langston 123 15 Jacobs 142 16 Langston 123 17 Jacobs 142 18 Jacobs 143 19 Jacobs 24-25. 20 Colborn 379 21 Avert, “Women, HIV & AIDS”, 2010 http://www.avert.org/women-hiv-aids.htm
as with the effects of chemicals, there is not enough research into prevention and cures for women to account for their disproportionate risk. Furthermore, women with AIDS are faced with the problem of transmitting their disease to their children just as women must contend with passing their chemical burden on to the next generation. Synthetic chemicals have deeply shaped women’s roles as mothers. Studies have shown that at least 5% of babies in the US are exposed to quantities of endocrine disruptors associated with neurological effects, simply from breastfeeding.22 The newspaper headline in Figure A exhibits the ramification of these findings.23 Mother’s milk, the embodiment of purity, is putting infants at risk. Even during pregnancy, babies are exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals. Studies have indicated that women who consume more synthetic chemicals via fish are more likely to have babies with birth defects. Furthermore, these defects may not manifest themselves for decades.24 Despite these findings, industry casts doubts on women’s concerns. Indeed, prenatal care has traditionally focused on the mother’s individual choices be it nutrition, or their ability to fulfill her “female duties”. Even a 2004 child rearing publication states that prevention of premature births should focus on improving mother’s choices.25 This mindset however places all fault on the mother, with no recognition of the chemical influences that contribute to birth defects. By emphasizing this type of research, industry can shirk the blame and portray concerned mothers as alarmist. This strategy of placing blame on the victim perpetuates inequality in a variety of ways for women, specifically in terms of dealing with sexual assault.
22 Colborn 381 23 Figure A. “Is Mother’s Milk fit For Consumption?” New York Times, Winter 1994, Gordon Hall and Grace Hoag Collection of Dissenting and Extremist Printed Propaganda 24 Langston 10 25 Langston 164
The exhibit features works that challenge this notion and seek to place blame on the perpetrators, be it assaulters or the companies contributing to chemical pollution. Even as knowledge such as this comes to light about the inequitable burden of chemicals, they continue to enter the environment and our bodies. Endocrine disrupting chemicals enter the environment in a variety of ways, each a means to increase efficiency and productivity. The first of these is through industrial activity. Pollution from industry can arise at all points in production, from inadequate storage of raw materials, transportation or improper disposal.26 Case study upon case study shows that communities are continually denied access to safe, public resources for the benefit of industry. Residents in Tennessee were told after toxic industrial waste ended up in their groundwater that they should refrain from drinking, bathing, cooking and even gardening with that water.27 “Receptor communities”, such as this Tennessee town, are usually not benefitting from the product or good at the root of the pollution. The product may be shipped far away or not offer any tangible benefit to residents. Indeed, indigenous communities in the Arctic, far from both consumption and production of chemicals, tend to have the greatest persistence of chemicals in the environment.28 The community, not the company, must deal with the ramifications of toxic pollution and remediation. When public water supplies are contaminated, the community is forced to either be subjected to poisons, or pay increased taxes for treatment. 29 Communities have little agency over their own land and resources. Companies spray without gaining permission of individual landowners. 30 There are very few channels in which citizens can oppose this corporate abuse. Decisions about where to place dumps, what chemicals are synthesized and safety regulations are not voted on. In order to create change, communities must file expensive lawsuits or pressure “distant” legislators.31 While such activism is necessary for policy change, it is extremely time consuming and relies on the community proving harm, rather than the company proving safety. Furthermore, legislators continue to be mostly male, meaning those making the laws about chemicals, and thereby women’s health, are not women.
26 Freudenberg 27 27 Freudenberg 16 28 Rebecca Altman, “Chemical Body Burden”, (Providence, RI, Brown University, 2004), http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&, 17 29 Carson 50 30 Carson 89 31 Freudenberg 40
Endocrine disruptors enter communities through other means besides industrial pollution. Various jobs put workers in toxic conditions, specifically factory and agricultural work. Pesticide exposure is especially detrimental. Industrial agricultural employers exploit farmworkers, and most of them living in poverty. They have little access to safe equipment, changes of clothes, adequate washing facilities for clothing or housing, and thus have little means to escape pesticide exposure.32 Many pesticides act as endocrine disruptors, leading to an increased frequency of the disorders described above among farmworker populations. Since side effects may not show up for years, it is very difficult to track illness in farmworker populations given the temporary nature of their positions and living conditions.33 This contributes to the invisibility of farm workers, and so little action is taken. Rather, instances of pesticide illness are portrayed as infrequent accidents. In reality however, pesticide illness in workers occurs even when pesticides are applied legally.34 Once again, this invisibility is magnified for women. In some agricultural sectors, up to 85% of pesticide applicators or workers who handle the produce are women. Due to their marginalized status as laborers, these women do not have the ability to take time off while pregnant or breast feeding, presenting not only health problems for them but also for their future children.35 Farmworkers are not the only population affected by chemicals in our food system. Consumers are continually at risk of chemical contamination, specifically via the livestock industry. Hormones used in livestock production enter bodies not just through livestock and dairy consumption, but also through runoff. Hormones enter groundwater and contaminate nearby produce.36 Despite documented cases of this, the meat industry has managed to bypass regulations and continue usage of these hormones. Regulation of meat challenges the idea of free market capitalism, as meat is associated with masculinity and power. Furthermore, since meat itself is a symbol of “strength, health and freedom”37, the industry has been able to maintain a façade of safety and authenticity. Industries, such as the meat industry, create narratives that promote safety and portray activists as alarmists. Activists work to counter these narratives, replacing myth and propaganda with facts. In reality, the growth hormones used are extremely
32 Jacobs 16 33 Jacobs 27 34 Silent Invaders 16 35 Silent Invaders 5. 36 Toxic Bodies 77 37 Toxic Bodies 84
problematic. They are synthetic estrogens, the type of endocrine disruptor most associated with reproductive cancers, which, as detailed before, affect women disproportionally. Activists seek to challenge the idea that the status quo cannot be changed. Indeed, the large protests featured in the exhibit show this focus on raising awareness about injustice. Activists against chemical proliferation do the same, seeking to counter the idea that harm is a necessary product of progress. The dominance of corporate interests in the political system has put consumers in a “mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental”.38 Indeed, the effects of chemicals are portrayed as necessary and negligible risks. When risk is calculated, a physical cost is placed on health, and more often than not the profit gained will overpower this cost. Risk is defined as a necessary component of progress, and precaution is associated with stagnation and limited growth. Indeed, “industry advocates [have] sought to portray precaution as a novel and reckless idea, rather than a long-held principle at the heart of public health”.39 Industry also discredits the science used by activists, capitalizing on the inherent uncertainty of science. It is up to consumers to prove harm for certain, rather than the companies to prove absolute safety. As a result, America has become a “nation of guinea pigs”40 with all the hardships on consumers, not industry. For example, although there were correlations to animal feed additives and vaginal cancer, until consumers could prove causation, industry made no effort to curtail their usage. 41 Even within the EPA, debate over protocol stagnates research and regulations are slow to take effect.42 The chemical industry uses a variety of tactics to discredit studies about toxicity. They argue that animal toxicity studies are not valid because humans are too different from animals, and humans are never exposed to equivalent levels of chemicals.43 However, these arguments are false. Health effects observed in animals continue to manifest themselves in humans. The same symptoms observed in studies about aquatic wildlife have been found in humans, embodying the phrase “what is good for trout is good for humans”44, 45. Industry also fails to
38 Carson 12 39 Toxic Bodies 154 40 Langston 20 41 Langston 101 42 Langston 162 43 Freudenberg 49 44 Frumpkin 135 45 Colborn 379
recognize that chemicals can be more harmful at low proportions. Thus, the low doses that are being portrayed as negligible may in fact be more detrimental. Industry also perpetuates the idea that we live in “sea of carcinogens”, and since there is no avoiding cancer, claims about synthetic chemicals are alarmist. In reality however, a majority of chemicals are not carcinogenic. Indeed, out of 7,000 substances tested only 1,500 are carcinogenic.46 This is not to say however that carcinogenic chemicals are of little concern. Rather, consumers cannot accept the claim that carcinogens are to be accepted. It is narratives such as this that activists seek to rewrite. In the words of Nancy Langton, author of Toxic Bodies, “impulses to denial, willful blindness and ideological distortion are just as powerful as rational analysis in causing social change. Historians must play exactly this role…we can and should provide counter narratives that push back against these manipulations”.47 How can communities counter the “corporate assault on health” 48 created by chemical pollution? Grassroots organizations have vigilantly pressed for regulation and remediation where government policy has failed to, taking chemical monitoring into their own hands. Movements has arisen made up of people who recognize that “hazardous waste problems don’t just happen in
places with odd sounding names like Love Canal…but they can happen in their own backyards. ”49 Lawsuits, public displays, and “citizen science” have led to an increased knowledge about the persistence of toxins in the environment. Community groups have taken up biomonitoring, or analyzing the chemicals present in their bodies, as a form of advocacy. Figure B is a parody of Time magazine from the exhibit,
46 Freudenberg 50 47 Langston 166 48 Freudenberg 9-15 49 Freudenberg 9-15
featuring a woman with a clock on her breast. She is literally a ticking time bomb, the chemicals in her body causing cancer. It is through personal analysis that activists challenge industry. Industry studies have proven inaccurate, even using strains of rats not sensitive to endocrine disrupting chemicals50. As a result, citizens have engaged in their own research. “Communities now participate in producing knowledge about chemicals inside the human body”51 Furthermore, community advocacy groups tend to blend data with personal stories, drawing on emotion and portraiture that industry cannot. “Bodies are emblems of environmental activism, leveraged for symbolic persuasion.”52 Indeed, people themselves have been portrayed as contaminated vessels, or dumping grounds. Public displays in which blood or breast milk is analyzed for toxins heighten awareness about the persistence of chemicals. No control groups are available for these studies, as virtually everyone in the US has been exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals.53
Women have been at the forefront of this activism against the risks of chemical technology. Indeed, 80-85% of US anti-toxic movements were composed primarily of women.54 This is the case for a variety of reasons. First, women, as discussed, are more Figure B
vulnerable to the risks of chemical accumulation. Secondly their role as mothers fuels these movements, as children are especially at risk form hormone disruptors. However, women activists have been portrayed as “emotive, fearful, ignorant and irrational”55 Women also are
50 Langston 126 51 Altman 23 52 Altman 21 53 Langston118 54 Jacobs 220 55 Jacobs 221
subjected to a “double jeopardy”, being exposed to chemicals just as men are in their everyday environment, but also to a greater degree in the home given women’s traditional role of performing house work.56 As a result, this collation between environmentalists and women has created a new branch of activism, or ecofeminism. Ecofeminists hold that both nature and women viewed as commodities of men57, and thus the movements should be joined. They protest violence, be it physical or chemical, as shown in Figure C and throughout the entire “Protecting EveryBody” section of the exhibit 58. Women stage demonstrations that show the “unintentional legacies women pass to the next generation” though cord blood and breast milk, bringing attention to the monumental choice women have to make about breastfeeding and transmitting chemicals.59 One such tactic is though “belly brigades” in which women wear plaster casts of pregnant bellies to acts as a symbolic armor against chemical proliferation.60 Indeed, Figure B, the women is surrounded by a plaster cast, perhaps a symbolic armor against the agents causing her harm. In addition to feminist environmental collaboration, other coalitions have been formed to counter toxic pollution. Labor and environmental groups, or green-blue coalitions, offer great promise as they combine calls for worker safety and community health. 61 Another coalition has formed between people of color and environmentalists. Given people of color’s disproportionate burden of chemicals, be it through location of their living environment, occupation or income, environmental movements must include these groups62. On example of this is the collaboration between environmental groups and Inuit populations to challenge industrial pollution. Lastly, anti-war groups and environmental groups share a common cause in opposing the industrial war complex that fuels the chemical industry. This fluidity and collation building between advocates is commonplace in activism. Throughout the exhibit, note the ties between the activist groups we feature. All are interconnected as they work towards justice.
56 Jacobs 225 57 Freudenberg 219 58 Figure B. New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, “Make the Connection: Breast Cancer and the Environment Protest”, Newsletter photograph, Winter 1994 Gordon Hall and Grace Hoag Collection of Dissenting and Extremist Printed Propaganda 59 Altman 22 60 Altman 22 61 Brian Mayer, Green Blue Coalitions: Fighting for Safe Workplaces and Healthy Communities, (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2009). 62 Freudenberg 208
While a chemical free world is impossible due to synthetic chemicals’ persistence63, policy and cultural changes can be made that foster safer living environments. Companies must shoulder the burden of proof that their products and production is safe, rather than consumers having to prove that they are dangerous. No one should assume that these things are safe, especially since industrial claims of safety have often been untrue. The principle of low does concentration must be integrated into regulatory science. “Language is a powerful instrument and should be used with integrity in public policy”.64 Rather than framing studies as risk assessments, they should be alternative assessments. The status quo is not the only option, and people should not be subjected to risk simply because it is more profitable. In Silent Invaders, the author, Jacobs, provides an allegory that embodies this principle. A woman comes to a river and is told by many specialists that the risk of wading or swimming though should not be that great, and so she should proceed. The woman however refuses, and instead walks to a bridge further up the way, choosing not to even consider risking her health. Consumers should not have to wager their health on a daily basis, and instead, advocates argue, alternatives should be developed.65 Health is not a privilege but a right, and thus alternatives to chemicals must be developed, especially in light of women’s disproportionate burden. Activists recognize this, and continue to work for a society that puts safety over profit, building bridges that create alternate paths towards justice.
63 Lester B. Lave & Arthur C. Upton, Toxic Chemicals, Health and the Environment, (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987) 2 64 Jacobs 215 65 Jacobs 215
Works Cited Altman, Rebecca “Chemical Body Burden”, Providence, RI, Brown University, 2004, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&, Avert, “Women, HIV & AIDS”, 2010, http://www.avert.org/women-hiv-aids.htm Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring . New York, Mariner Books, 1962. Freudenberg, Nicholas, Not in Our Backyards! New York, Monthly Review Press, 1984. Frumpkin, Howard, Urban Sprawl and Public Health Washington DC, Island Press, 2004. Jacobs, Miriam & Barbara Dinham, Silent Invaders, New York, Pesticide Action Network 2003 180 Langston, Nancy, Toxic Bodies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Lave, Lester B. & Arthur C. Upton, Toxic Chemicals, Health and the Environment, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Mayer, Brian, Green Blue Coalitions: Fighting for Safe Workplaces and Healthy Communities, Ithaca, Cornell University Press 2009.
Theo Colborn, vom Saal & Soto. “Developmental effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Wildlife and Humans” (Washington DC, World Wildlife Fund, Volume 101 1993) 380, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC1519860/pdf/envhper00375-0020.pdf Katie, you’ve done an excellent job of bringing your thesis to the fore and crafting transitions that keep your paper engaged with the thesis at every stage. Congratulations! The elements that still need work are the persnickety details. I’ve noted several examples throughout the paper. A / 93