Environmental Toxins Threaten Reproductive Health and Justice

Taken from the July/August 2014 issue of The Women’s Health Activist Newsletter.

It is important to remember that reproductive health includes both access to services to prevent or end a pregnancy and the ability to become pregnant, have a healthy pregnancy, and parent one’s children. Too often, our everyday environment — from the air we breathe to the personal care products we use — negatively impacts the health of women, families, and communities.

Most of us would be surprised to learn that the products we use every day, from our sofas to our shampoos, can harm our health. Most of us falsely assume that the products we buy are safe for human consumption and use. After all, how could it be legal to put toxic and untested chemicals into maternity clothes and baby toys?

Yet, mounting scientific evidence indicates that personal care products may be especially dangerous to reproductive health because they contain a large number of toxic chemicals. Many of these toxic ingredients are endocrine disruptors that interfere with the body’s normal hormone functions, even at low levels of exposure.i

The endocrine system is the communication system for the glands, hormones, and cellular receptors that control the body’s internal functions. It plays an important role during critical windows of development, including during pregnancy, infancy, and puberty. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are all around us — in pesticides, wood preservatives, paints, plastics, personal care products, and chemicals used for natural gas extraction and coal mining.

The sad truth is, the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 — which regulates chemical use in this country — is more than 30 years old and has never adequately protected us from the dangers of chemical exposure. The Act was inadequate when it was first signed into law and continues to fail public health today. In fact, our current system for regulating chemicals is so broken that only 200 of the 80,000 chemicals in production today have been tested for safety; some uses of only 5 of these toxic chemicals have been restricted.ii

The result is widespread and ubiquitous exposure to damaging toxins. The evidence is mounting that these dangerous chemicals do significant and lasting damage. A recent study examined the link between fertility and phthalates, which are a common group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in personal care products. Researchers followed 501 couples trying to conceive and found that high concentrations of three particular phthalates in male partners were associated with a 20 percent increase in the time it took to achieve pregnancy, compared to couples where the male partner did not have high phthalate concentrations.iii

Another study revealed that pregnant women with high blood levels of Bisphenol A (BPA, another type of endocrine-disrupting chemical) have a significantly increased risk of experiencing a miscarriage.iv Of additional concern is the fact that damage from chemical exposure can be passed on to subsequent generations: exposure to certain synthetic chemicals during pregnancy is associated with genital malformation in the grandsons of the women who were first exposed.v

We need meaningful chemical policy reform to replace our current system for regulating chemicals with one focused on prioritizing public health rather than granting a free pass to the chemical industry. There are currently two bills before Congress that aim to update the Toxic Substance Control Act: the Chemicals in Commerce Act and the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Sadly, both do more to protect the chemical industry than women, their families, and communities.vi

Exposure to environmental toxins from products we use is significant, but just one piece of the puzzle. Reproductive and environmental health concerns are also generated from hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and coal mining.

Fracking has generated new energy resources, but they come at a severe cost to both environmental and reproductive health. The hundreds of chemicals used in fracking have not been publicly disclosed in most states, because they are considered “trade secrets.” Of known fracking chemicals, 35 percent are endocrine disruptors linked to infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, impaired learning and brain development, and reproductive cancers.vii The frightening power of “trade secrets” became crystal clear in June when a North Carolina bill was signed into law, making disclosure of trade secret-protected information about fracking chemicals a misdemeanor.viii

Communities near fracking sites are exposed to these reproductive toxins through water and air that has been compromised by chemicals. Water treatment facilities are unable to adequately process dirty water generated by fracking, and leave high methane levels in the communities’ drinking water. The problem is so bad that the methane makes drinking water flammable — yet people in the community are still expected to drink it.ix While fracking currently occurs in 32 states, federal regulations fail to match this reach. Despite the number of risks that fracking poses for our health and the environment, the gas industry is largely exempt from major federal environmental protection laws.

Coal mining has similar dangers. Coal ash (the waste product of burning coal) contains some of the world’s deadliest toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium. Prolonged exposure to coal ash has been linked to birth defects, several types of cancer affecting the reproductive system, and infertility. There are more than 1,100 coal ash sites nationwide, yet there are no federal safeguards to protect people’s health from coal ash or other coal-related water contamination.

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i. Environmental Working Group Website, Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors, Washington, DC: Environmental Working Group. October 28, 2013. Retrieved June 2, 2014 fromhttp://www.ewg.org/research/dirty-dozen-list-endocrine-disruptors

ii. Reproductive Health Technologies Project Website, Creating a Climate for Change: THE EARTH KIT, Washington, DC: Reproductive Health Technologies Project. No date. Retrieved June 2, 2014 fromhttp://www.rhtp.org/fertility/vallombrosa/documents/Toolkit.pdf

iii. National Institutes of Health Website, High plasticizer levels in males linked to delayed pregnancy for female partners, Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health. March 5, 2014. Retrieved June 2, 2014 from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/030514-phthalates-conception.aspx

iv. American Society for Reproductive Medicine Website, Effects of BPA and Phthalates on Conception and Pregnancy, Birmingham, AL: American Society for Reproductive Medicine. October 14, 2013. Retrieved June 2, 2014 from http://www.asrm.org/Effects_of_BPA_and_Phthalates_on_Conception_and_Pregnancy/

v. Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment Website, Shaping Our Legacy: Reproductive Health and the Environment, San Francisco, CA: Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. September 2008. Retrieved June 2, 2014 from http://www.prhe.ucsf.edu/prhe/pubs/shapingourlegacy.pdf

vi. Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Website, Legislative Update, Washington, DC: Safer Chemicals Healthy Families. No date. Retrieved June 2, 2014 from http://saferchemicals.org/legislative-update/

vii. Center for Environmental Health Website, Toxic & Dirty Secrets: The truth about fracking & your family’s health, Oakland, CA: Center for Environmental Health. No date. Retrieved June 2, 2014 fromhttp://www.ceh.org/legacy/storage/documents/Fracking/fracking_final-low-1.pdf

viii. ThinkProgress Website, North Carolina to Lift Ban and Criminalize The Disclosure of Fracking Chemicals, Washington, DC: ThinkProgress.  June 9, 2014. Retrieved June 9, 2014 fromhttp://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/06/05/3445260/north-carolina-frack….

ix.  Reproductive Health Technologies Project Website, Creating a Climate for Change: THE EARTH KIT, Washington, DC: Reproductive Health Technologies Project. No date. Retrieved June 2, 2014 fromhttp://www.rhtp.org/fertility/vallombrosa/documents/Toolkit.pdf