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Environmental Exposures and their Impact on the Health of Women of Color

11People of all income levels, employment categories, races, ethnicities, and locations in the United States are exposed to environmental toxins and toxicants. Such exposure is thought by many to occur primarily through the intake to food, water and air, but what some fail to realize is that the clothes they wear, detergent they use, housing they inhabit, furniture in their homes, or transportation they take are all sources of environmental contaminants. Unfortunately, exposure to toxic chemicals is an increasingly common part of everyday life.

Today more than 84,000 chemicals are in use in the US, the majority of which have yet to be tested for toxicity to human health and the environment. Of the chemicals that have been tested, most have only been evaluated for their acute consequences to adult males in industrial settings. Toxic chemicals that enter the environment pose health problems for women – especially women of color – that are unique from those for men, because women and minorities are more likely to work in lower-status, lower-wage jobs. They tend to be disproportionately exposed to a myriad of hazardous chemicals, including agricultural pesticides, home cleaning products, industrial cleaning products, and chemicals used in hair and nail salons. And as such, they bear a greater burden of the diseases and conditions associated with these exposures.

  • Breast cancer: Repeated exposure to toxic environments is related to an increased risk for breast cancer. While this form of cancer is diagnosed 10% less frequently in African American women than White women, the former are 40% more likely to die from the disease. Disproportionate environmental exposures, socioeconomic status, and inadequate access to quality health care all contribute to this higher rate of morbidity.
  • Asthma: The disparity in asthma prevalence and severity provides a striking example of the effect of disproportionate exposures and health outcomes. The prevalence of asthma is highest among multi-racial Americans, Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent and non-Hispanic blacks, and is also higher among those living in poverty.
  • Birth Outcomes: African American women have consistently had higher rates of preterm and low birth weight babies, in spite of prenatal care usage, behaviors during pregnancy, and socioeconomic status. A growing number of studies have associated certain environmental contaminants with these poor birth outcomes.

12People of color now comprise a majority in neighborhoods with poor air quality, disproportionate exposure to toxic hazards, unhealthy housing conditions (e.g., mold, dampness and pest infestation), and lack of safe areas for physical activity. Race and socioeconomic status are highly correlated with living near harmful sources of pollution (e.g. commercial hazardous waste facilities); in fact, 46% of low-income housing units sit within about a mile of factories that report toxic emissions to the EPA. These poor environmental conditions have led to higher-than-average rates of asthma, lead poisoning, and exposure to contaminated water, pesticides and mercury, especially among women and children living in these areas.

Environmental racism – the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color – is the reason so many people, especially women, have become involved in the environmental justice movement. This movement seeks to abolish environmental harms by improving environmental conditions, identifying and mitigating structural inequalities, and finding solutions to empower traditionally marginalized people. While there is plenty of work yet to be done, the fact that these issues are being taken into account indicates that the environmental health of minority women is becoming a national priority.

To ensure your environmental health and to help protect that of minority communities:

  • Recognize that women suffer unique effects of environmental hazards and advocate for policies that improve reproductive health and pregnancy outcomes.
  • Push for stricter regulation through legislation such as the Toxic Substances Control Act that establishes health and safety testing, bans the most toxic chemicals, and protects the most vulnerable populations.
  • Support the equitable distribution of green space, walking and biking trails, and playgrounds in low-income communities.
  • Urge regulatory protections and safer labor practices for those exposed to toxic chemicals in industries dominated by low-income workers and women of color.

Health inequities have persisted in this country for decades – in health care, housing, education, and even in the environment. But the fact of the matter is that they are and always have been avoidable. Poor communities and women of color are systematically and unjustly exposed to environmental contaminants that hinder them from being the healthiest individuals they can be. And until the environmental health of these populations is accounted for, the generations that follow will never know what it feels like to be truly free from environmental contamination.

Amanda Zabala is a graduate intern at the Center for Maternal and Infant Health. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health, and majoring in Maternal and Child Health.

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