Women, Health, and the Environment

Powerful voices for systemic change

Women, Health, and the Environment
Powerful voices for systemic change

Women's Voices...

At Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), we believe that everyone, regardless of their race, socio-economic status, or gender, deserves to live in an environment free of toxic chemicals that may give them cancer, cause infertility and birth defects, or cause health problems for future generations. Unfortunately, women tend to face greater levels of exposure to certain toxic chemicals than men. This is why WVE amplifies women’s voices to eliminate the chemicals that harm our health and communities.

...for the Earth

WVE defines the environment as the places people live, work and play. About 80,000 chemicals are in use in the environment in the United States, yet only about 200 have been thoroughly tested for safety. These chemicals enter the environment through contaminated water, the food chain, air pollution, or household products. We aim to stop the toxic assault on women’s health and the planet by engaging, inspiring, and mobilizing women to call for a thriving, toxic-free future.

Toxic Chemicals and Women’s Health

From mercury in mascara, to phthalates in fragrance, to styrene in maxi pads, toxic chemicals in products marketed to women abound. A study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported that women expose themselves to over 100 individual chemicals each day through personal care products[1]. Similarly, women tend to experience greater exposure to hazardous cleaning chemicals than men. While gender roles and societal expectations have changed over time, a national study showed that women complete over 70% of the housework in the average home[2]. Because there is little regulation determining which chemicals can be used in these products, the door is wide open to a variety of toxic exposures. These small daily exposures can lead to chemicals building up in women’s bodies, which add up over a lifetime of use.

Women not only face higher levels of exposure to certain toxic chemicals than men, but the impacts of chemical exposure affect women differently than men. Many chemicals accumulate in fat, and women generally have a higher percentage of fat tissue than men. As a result, women, as compared to men, had significantly higher levels of 10 of the 116 toxic chemicals tested in a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those 10 chemicals, 3 were phthalates – a group of chemicals found commonly in health and beauty products that are linked to birth defects[3].

Research indicates women’s health problems are on the rise, and this may be related to toxic chemical exposure. Over the last two decades, breast cancer rates have risen from a risk of 1 in 20 to 1 in 8[4]. Researchers are concerned that endocrine disrupting chemicals[5] found in products such as pesticides, cleaning products and other household products may be key contributors to this increase in cancer. Endocrine disruptors may also affect the onset of puberty, which is occurring at an earlier age among young girls, as well as endometriosis, a leading cause of female infertility that is far more common today than it was 50 years ago[6].

The Next Generation is Affected, Too

Women are the first environment for the next generation. Many chemicals stored in a woman’s body are passed onto her child during pregnancy and later through breast-feeding. A 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group revealed that at least 287 hazardous industrial chemicals pass through the placenta to the fetus[7]. Toxic chemicals from beauty products and household cleaners and other sources are commonly detected in breastmilk[8][9]. While studies still document that breastfeeding remains the best option for building infant immunity, the quantity of harmful chemicals to which women are exposing their young is of grave concern and poses an unnecessary burden on the developing child.

Women of Color are at Greater Risk

It is well-established that women of color experience some diseases and conditions at significantly higher rates than white women. African-American women are 34% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women[10], and lupus, an autoimmune disease, affects African-American women at three times the rate of white women. Lupus also disproportionately affects women of Latina, Asian and American Indian descent[11]. African American women are more likely to have premature births and babies born with low birth weights[12]. While there may be numerous factors associated with these increased risks, each of these risks has also been linked with exposure to toxic chemicals.

A particular concern is exposure to personal care and beauty products. Many products marketed to women of color, such as skin lighteners and hair relaxers, contain some of the most toxic chemicals on the market. A 2018 study of popular hair products used by Black women found they contained multiple chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and asthma[13]. According to researchers, “pressure to meet Western standards of beauty means Black, Latina, and Asian American women are using more beauty products, and thus are exposed to higher levels of chemicals known to be harmful to health.”[14]

People of color, including African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, comprise a majority of the population in neighborhoods where commercial hazardous waste facilities are located. 46% of housing units for the poor – mostly people of color – sit within about a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the EPA[15]. As a result, people of color suffer higher-than-average rates of asthma, lead poisoning, and exposure to contaminated water, pesticides, and mercury[16]. These factors, when combined with exposure through the workplace, home, and diet, often lead to greater adverse health effects in women of color than in the rest of the population.

Indigenous people who rely on traditional diets of fish and marine mammals are also strongly affected by environmental contamination, particularly of water. One study found blood levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at levels six to nine times higher in the Yupik people of Alaska than in the general population in the lower 48 states[17].

Occupational Exposures to Women

Certain female-dominated occupations put women at greater risk for toxic chemical exposure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, in 2017, of the 1.5 million people working in the “maids and housekeeping cleaners” industry19, 88% were female[18]. Nationally, among males and females, 40% of housekeeping cleaners are Latino/a, while another 16% are African American[19]. A study in Spain found that female domestic cleaners with asthma or chronic bronchitis suffered short term respiratory symptoms more commonly on days that they worked with cleaning chemicals such as diluted bleach, degreasing sprays, and air fresheners[20]. A 2018 European study has found that women who work as cleaners, or who regularly clean the family home using cleaning sprays or other products, have a greater decline in lung health over time than women who do not clean. The researchers, from the University of Bergen in Norway, say the faster decline in lung health is comparable to the decline one would expect from smoking 20 cigarettes a day over 10 to 20 years[21].

Women account for up to 97% of the nail salon industry’s workforce in the United States. The majority of nail salon workers are women of color, and the largest ethnic group represented is Vietnamese women[22]. Nail salon products contain a host of toxic chemicals, such as toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate, which have been linked to either reproductive harm or cancer. Women working in nail salons are increasingly reporting health concerns such as headaches, skin rashes, and difficulty breathing[23][24]. Some studies are finding increased risks of miscarriages and pregnancy complications among salon workers[25][26]. Nationwide, 58% of nail workers are of reproductive age[27], putting them at risk.

The Connection Between Oil & Products

Nearly all the chemicals used in everyday products come from oil, natural gas, or to a lesser extent, coal. Six petrochemicals (ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, and xylene) are the building blocks for the thousands of chemical ingredients in products women use every day. A 2018 study found that everyday consumer products are responsible for 38 percent of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, which are major contributors to air pollution, while gasoline and diesel emissions accounted for only 33 percent[28]. Communities where the raw materials are sourced, and where chemicals and products are refined, manufactured, and disposed of are especially impacted by exposure to toxins. Even a product which is determined safe for use by consumers may not be truly healthy for all women, or for the planet.

Women are Motivated to Protect Health and the Environment

Our plan to change this reality hinges on the theory that once informed, women care and act. In fact, research shows that women consistently rate the environment as one of their greatest concerns. According to a 2016 poll from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of women said that the environment was important to them in the next election, compared to 47 percent of men. The same poll showed that women place a higher level of importance on the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities than men do (69% of women say this is very important, compared with 56% of men). According to the 2017 Women Lead report, women legislators vote for environmental protection more often than their male counterparts in both the House and Senate.

This concern for – and willingness to act upon – issues of environmental and community health may originate from many women’s role as the primary providers of healthcare oversight for their families. A poll conducted by the federal Office of Women’s Health found that nearly two-thirds of women were responsible for healthcare decisions for their family[29]. In addition, women are the primary consumer decision makers in 85% of all United States households[30], making them a very powerful consumer group that collectively holds the power to influence critical corporate decisions.


[1] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. 2004.  Exposures Add Up Survey Results June 2004 .  Available: http://www.cosmeticsdata base.com/research/exposures.php
[2] Bird, C.  1999. Gender, Household Labor, and Pyschological Distress: The Impact of the Amount and Division of Housework.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40(1): 32-45.
[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  2003. Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.  Department of Health and Human Services. NCEH Pub No. 02-0716.  2003 Jan; 1-257.
[4] Breast Cancer Fund. 2008. State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment, fifth edition. Available: http://www.breastcancerfund.org/publications
[5] Zota, A.R., A. Aschengrau, et. al. 2010. Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: a case-control study. Environmental Health. 9:40.
[6] Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at University of California, San Francisco. 2008. Shaping our Legacy: Reproductive Health and the Environment. Report on Summit on Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility. 2008 Sep; 1-80.
[7] Environmental Working Group (EWG). 2005. Body Burden 2: The Pollution in Newborns. Available: http://archive.ewg. org/reports/bodyburden2/
[8] Krysiak‐Baltyn K, Toppari J, Skakkebaek NE, Jensen TS, Virtanen HE, Schramm KW, Shen H, Vartiainen T, Kiviranta H, Taboureau O, Brunak S and Main KM. (2010) Country‐specific chemical signatures of persistent environmental compounds in breast milk. International Journal of Andrology. 14 March 2010
[9] LaKind JS, Wilkins A, and Berlin CM. (2004) Environmental chemicals in human milk: a review of levels, infant exposures and health, and guidance for future research.  Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2004 Jul 15;198(2):184-208.
[10] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010. Finding Solutions to Health Disparities: At A Glance 2010. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/AAG/reach.htm
[11] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. 2008. Eliminate Disparities in Lupus (Online Factsheet). Available: http://www.cdc.gov/omhd/amh/factsheets/lupus.htm
[12] March of Dimes Fact Sheet: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Birth Outcomes. Available at: https://www.marchofdimes.org/March-of-Dimes-Racial-and-Ethnic-Disparities_feb-27-2015.pdf
[13] Helm JS, Nishioka M, Brody JG, Rudel, RA and Dodson RE. (2018) Measurement of endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals in hair products used by Black women. Environmental Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2018.03.030
[14] https://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-08/gwu-tei081017.php
[15] Bullard, R; Saha, R; Wright, B. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race and Twenty 1987-2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States.  Report for United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries. Available: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/twart.pdf
[16] Ibid.
[17] Physicians for Social Responsibility. Available: http://www.psr.org/resources/toxic-chemicals-and-environmental-justice.html
[18] Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2017. Table 11: Household Data Annual Averages. Employed Persons by Detailed Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 16 yrs/older. Available: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf
[19] Ibid.
[20] Medina-Ramón, M; Zock, J. P, et al. 2006. Short-term respiratory effects of cleaning exposures in female domestic cleaners. European Respiratory Journal. 27:1196-1203.
[21] http://www.thoracic.org/about/newsroom/press-releases/resources/women-cleaners-lung-function.pdf
[22] NAILS Magazine. 2009. Industry Statistics. NAILS Magazine 2000-2010 Big Book.  Available: http://www.nailsmag.com/ pdfView.aspx?pdfName=NAILSBB2009-10stats.pdf
[23] Roelofs C., Azaroff LS., Holcroft C., Nguyen H. and Doan T. (2008) Results from a community-based occupational health survey of Vietnamese-American nail salon workers. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health. Vol. 10, No. 4, pp: 353-361. August 2008.
[24] Park S., Gwak S. and Choi S. (2014) Assessment of Occupational Symptoms and Chemical Exposures for Nail Salon Technicians in Daegu City, Korea. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. Vol. 47, pp: 169-176. 2014.
[25] Herdt-Losavio ML., Lin S., Druschel CM., Hwang SA., Mauer MP. And Carlson GA. (2009) The risk of congenital malformations and other neonatal and maternal health outcomes among licensed cosmetologists. American Journal of Perinatology. Vol. 26, No. 9, pp: 625-631. October 2009.
[26] John ME., Savitz DA. and Shy CM. (1994) Spontaneous abortions among cosmetologists. Epidemiology. Vol. 5, No. 2, pp:147-155. March 1994.
[27] Ibid.
[28] McDonald et al. (2018) Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissions. Science. Vol. 359, February 16, 2018, p. 760. doi:10.1126/science.aaq0524.
[29] “Majority of Women Control Health Care Decisions”,  based on a survey conducted by EDK Associates, Merck Media Minutes, Summer 1997.
[30] The Women’s Foundation of California. On the Road to Equity: A Statewide Agenda for Women and Girls. Available: http:// www.womensfoundca.org/atf/cf/%7BF4E8B0D2-94CD-4B29-B9F4-FEE4BA76EAE1%7D/FINALequity_report.pdf