Women are often more exposed to chemicals and waste due to different socio-economic roles defined along gender lines. Certain types of chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), can build up to dangerous levels in women causing adverse reproductive, developmental, immunological, hormonal, and carcinogenic effects with varied impacts.
According to a report published in the Asia edition of the Plastics Atlas, known hazards of plastics on human health could be posing a more significant danger to women, citing their “unequal exposure” to products that contain toxic materials largely invisible while in plain sight.
Break Free From Plastic
The risk is greater among those who work in places where plastic exposure is inevitable, such as garments factories and garbage dumps. The report was jointly published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation, Break Free From Plastic, and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. Kevin Li, program manager at Heinrich Böll Stiftung and among executive editors of the reports, said:
“Basically, it [plastic toxins] enters our food cycle from land, sea, to vegetables and fish, through to our food products sold in market and end up in our body. It results in a whole range of diseases: cancer, diabetes, mental disorder, obesity and even infertility […] women are actually more vulnerable to health hazards from plastic exposure, from plastic packaging, cosmetics, sanitary pads, clothes and even work as waste pickers.”
Medical professional, researcher and author of “Libérate de tóxicos – Free yourself from toxins”, plastic is not only harmful to the environment, but it is also disastrous for human health. This is due to some of its components, known as endocrine disruptors, substances that have the potential to alter our hormonal systems and cause diseases such as cancer, hypothyroidism and multiple chemical sensitivity; she opines that this doesn’t affect men and women equally because:
- In general, women have more adipose tissue (fat tissue) than men. This is relevant because this is where the body stores the toxic chemicals that come from plastic.
- Besides, women’s cyclic nature, from the day of our first period until we reach menopause, means that we are more vulnerable to hormonal changes than men. Therefore, we are more affected by chemical exposure to plastic’s components.
- But this is not all; the truth is that we (as women) expose ourselves by coming in contact with these plastic components more often than men.
“Yes, When we analyzed all the data collected to date about endocrine disruptors, is seems that the biggest loser in this story is women, again. Not only due to their sex, being a woman with XX chromosomes, but also due to gender divides. I mean, due to external factors such as jobs and responsibilities allocated to women by society.”
Housework and caring for others are general responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of women in most societies around the world. The social obligations related to gender imply that women should look beautiful and take care of their appearance, thereby consuming all the personal care products required. Finally, there is the socially accepted idea that women should be “clean” whilst menstruating.
Housework and Taking Care of Others
Globally, 75% of the non-paid work is taken on by women. Women dedicate between 3 to 6 hours of their day towards being carers and doing housework, whilst men only contribute between 30 minutes to 2 hours. This not only signifies a tremendous social inequality but also affects the health of women.
The majority of non-paid work done by women requires contact with chemical agents that originate from plastic and are commonly present in detergents, cleaning agents, gels and soaps. So, it is not surprising to discover that women suffer the consequences of this exposure more than men. However, this is not the only aspect by which we, as women, are more at risk from the harmful effects of plastic.
Beauty and Personal Care
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWP), US women use an average of 12 cosmetic products a day and they are exposed to 168 chemical substances, whilst men are only exposed to half as many. These chemical substances from plastic packaging or products such as BPA or phthalates affect women’s health.
The serious part is that we still don’t understand precisely how seeing as the effects of these synthetic chemical compounds on our health are studied individually rather than in combination. What the chemical industry studies are whether the amount of toothpaste, make-up base or moisturizer you use each day is harmful, but not the potential combined effect of all these products on your body.
Hence, women are taking a risk by exposing themselves to unknown health side-effects using their cosmetics and beauty products daily. This is even more important for women who work all day whilst in contact with these compounds: beauticians, hairdressers, make-up artists, manicurists, etc. There is no legislation regulating the use of gloves and masks”. This on top of the fact that the majority of the staff in beauty salons are women.
Half the world’s population menstruates every month for the duration of their reproductive life. This is a business opportunity that has not gone unnoticed by the plastic age. Every woman can end up using between 10,000 and 20,000 tampons and disposable sanitary pads during their lifetime. The result is not only an environmental problem but a health risk too. Unlike menstrual cups and fabric hygienic pads, tampons and single-use sanitary pads are made from cellulose, plastic and synthetic fibers. These materials come in contact with our skin and sometimes even end up adhering to the sides of their vagina (in the case of rayon tampons), posing a serious health hazard.