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17 The Environment and Reproductive Politicslocked

17 The Environment and Reproductive Politicslocked

  • Rickie Solinger
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p. 121How are environmental contaminants affecting reproductive health in the United States?

No one knows for sure the relationship between contaminants and reproduction, but there are some indications that the effects are felt nationwide. Today, chemical production in the United States is a $450 billion industry, manufacturing and mining products that Americans come into contact with all day long. Chemicals are in the air and the water; in our food, clothes, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals; in house paint, mattresses, refrigerators, cell phones, household cleaning supplies, building materials, and cars. Some Americans experience very high levels of chemical exposure, particularly if they live near chemical plants, in agricultural areas where pesticides are used, or in heavily air-polluted urban areas. The Toxic Substances Control Act, which was passed by Congress in 1976 and has not been updated despite the development of many new chemicals and uses, does not require manufacturers to prove that their products meet safety standards; consequently, only a very small percentage of the chemicals in circulation have been tested for health impacts. For most chemicals, including hundreds used in consumer products, p. 122we have no information about whether they have adverse effects on reproductive functions and human development.1

American scientists have been aware for many decades that some chemicals have had specific harmful impacts on human development. In 1962, Dr. Frances Kelsey, a pharmacologist at the Food and Drug Administration, worked hard to remove thalidomide, a tranquilizer prescribed to pregnant women as an anti-nausea agent, from the American market after it was shown to cause deformation of fetal limbs. Kelsey and ­others understood that thalidomide’s impact demonstrated that the fetus can be uniquely sensitive to chemical exposure. As mentioned earlier, in 1971, Diethylstilbestrol, or DES, a synthetic nonsteroidal estrogen that obstetricians had been prescribing to American women to prevent miscarriages, was shown to cause a rare form of cervical and vaginal cancer in the daughters of women who had been given the drug during pregnancy. Over time, research showed that both sons and daughters of these women had high rates of infertility and other reproductive problems. This episode clarified chemical impacts across generations, as even the reproductive functioning of grandchildren was affected.

Today, scientists estimate that the reproductive health of Americans has deteriorated significantly from that of their grandparents, citing developments such as the declining sperm counts many men experience, especially those living in certain industrialized regions of the country, and the rise in the incidence of breast, testicular, and prostate cancers. Reproductive epidemiologists, toxicologists, and other scientists and medical clinicians have developed clear evidence in recent years that chemical exposures are ubiquitous and harmful to reproductive and other functions. A 2011 study of 286 pregnant women detected 43 banned and contemporary chemicals in the bloodstreams of 99 to 100 percent of the women. Other studies have shown that starting at conception, humans are exposed to hundreds of chemicals or more that can cause health problems across their life span. These may p. 123include low birth weight, fetal anomalies, learning ­disabilities, childhood cancers, diabetes, and adult cancers, among other problems.2

Scientific research today is linking chemical exposures to increased incidence of compromised reproductive systems among both women and men, and also to the reproductive system as a transmitter of health challenges to subsequent generations. Studies are focusing on relationships between various environmental contaminants before and during pregnancy and specific adverse outcomes, including infertility, compromised fecundity, and high rates of miscarriage; pregnant women’s exposure to air pollutants and perinatal ­outcomes, including infant mortality; exposure to certain plastics during critical periods of fetal development and the incidence of fetal anomalies; persistent exposure to environmental contaminants and the incidence of low sperm quality and high rates of endometriosis; exposure to workplace chemicals and adverse pregnancy outcomes; and male and female exposure to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and male subfertility, high miscarriage rates, menstruation problems, and other reproductive health problems. Studies are also suggesting connections between early puberty and menopause and environmental or lifestyle conditions. Recent studies in California and New York have shown that children who as fetuses were exposed to substantial levels of neurotoxic pesticides have lower IQs when entering school.

Reproductive health experts who focus on environmental impacts and their consequences warn that some of their findings are unexpected and ominous, and they suggest the need for a great deal more study. For example, findings show that even low doses of or exposure to some contaminants can alter gene expression. Other studies show that human exposure to chemical mixtures, which is very common, causes harm to reproductive functions that is more serious than if the exposure is to a single chemical. Finally, scientists have found lifelong effects when the egg or sperm has been exposed, or if p. 124the exposure is in utero. But the ability of scientists to predict which groups and individuals are most susceptible to harm from exposure is still underdeveloped. Scientists working in this area generally agree that many factors can contribute to heightened reproductive vulnerability to environmental exposures, including age, gender, genetic and epigenetic variation, diet and obesity, infections, disease history and treatments, lifestyle factors such as drug use, and occupation.

Beyond these factors, scientists, physicians, scholars, and advocates are paying more attention to how socioeconomic and racial disparities and the experience of living or working near certain industries and industrial accidents creates heightened vulnerability for reproductive-related impacts from environmental exposures. Community activists are bringing attention to reproductive health impacts in communities of color and indigenous communities due to contaminated military sites in Alaska and New Mexico; to the operation of medical and solid waste incinerators in East Oakland, California; to the exposure of immigrant nail salon workers to common beauty industry chemicals in unventilated working conditions, and other such situations.

Environmental scientists and others working in this area are focused on basic questions of public health as well as on the right of humans to environmental safety, including freedom from exposure to contaminants that can harm their reproductive capacity and outcomes. They warn that the lack of attention to these matters, the lack of funding to pursue testing and solutions, and the failure to empower official oversight to regulate this arena will have dire consequences for the viability of the population in the future.

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What are environmentalists saying about population growth, consumption, and challenges to global sustainability?

Since the publication of Paul and Anne Erlich’s book, The Population Bomb, in 1968, a number of US environmentalists p. 125have identified population expansion as one of the largest problems affecting the country and the planet. Proponents of this view say that while rapid rates of population growth have subsided recently, there are still about 80 million babies born each year, a rate that will bring world population to over 9 ­billion by 2050. This is simply too many people, they argue, for the earth’s resources—water, forest, energy, food—to support. In the past, many population-control organizations supported government-based sterilization and contraception mandates that were unconcerned with women’s interests and sought to constrain the fertility rates of poor women in particular.

Today, however, proponents of population reduction ­support efforts in the United States and around the world to make contraception and sometimes abortion available to women, arguing that 100 million women in the poorest communities and countries want to control their fertility but lack the means to do so. Such organizations today are more likely to talk in terms of women’s reproductive rights and the relationship between elevation in the status of women and falling rates of reproduction. They also underscore how the eradication of poverty goes hand-in-hand with reduced fertility rates.

Other environmentalists identify the most profound source of environmental degradation as lavish consumption supported by nonrenewable energy in developed countries. Some proponents of this view say that most population growth in the future will occur among the poorest people on earth, who would still consume the fewest resources and contribute the smallest share of greenhouse gases, while people in the richest countries continue to consume at environmentally disastrous levels.

Many environmentalists reject the either/or nature of this discussion, advocating reduced and more environmentally sensible consumption in rich countries and reduced rates of reproduction in all countries in which growth rates exceed standards of sustainability. Still, as answers are sought, p. 126governmental officials, scientists, human rights activists, and others have to face what appears to be a terribly paradoxical conundrum as they seek perspectives and solutions: reducing poverty reduces population growth, but increasing wealth is the surest path to increased consumption and resource depletion.

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What are the implications of these environmental perspectives for the most vulnerable women?

When state governments began to distribute welfare funds under the Social Security Act of 1935, many states restricted benefits to white mothers only. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the federal government intermittently pressed states to stop using racialized exclusions. Though states complied, they often justified benefits on the bases of racialized environmental crises—overpopulation, crowded cities, crime—and population-control principles, requiring poor mothers of color, in particular, to be celibate, or pressing them to have abortions or to be sterilized or take contraceptives. From this time onward, in the United States and abroad, population policies have often targeted the bodies of the poorest and most vulnerable women. These policies and practices obscure women’s health and material needs, while focusing blame for environmental degradation on those with the least means. They also obscure the broader, industrial causes of resource depletion and other environmental problems.

Over the past several decades, the environmental justice movement and activists drawing attention to environmental racism have pointed out that landfills, incinerators, and power plants are almost always built where poor people of color live, causing especially high rates of breast cancer, infertility, miscarriage, and birth anomalies in these communities. Those who draw attention to these matters provide many examples. They cite industrial waste and contamination in the Gulf states causing long-term residents, mostly African p. 127American and Latina/o, to test positive for chemicals linked to ­infertility, miscarriage, low birth rate, low sperm count, and developmental and respiratory disorders for children exposed in utero. Mohawk and other indigenous peoples have organized to demand remediation of toxic waste sites such as the PCB-filled open lagoons leaking into the St. Lawrence River, a crucial waterway for Mohawks. The toxins are contaminating the Mohawks’ food chain, including the milk of lactating mothers. And Latina/o activists are demanding attention to the fact that 66 percent of their population lives in areas of the United States where air quality does not meet EPA standards, a condition of life causing disproportionately negative impacts on pregnant Latina women and their children.3