Dying for us

Considering the women that make our stuff

I mostly consider myself an optimist: the kind of girl that laughs a lot, even in the face of adversity. Then I spend some time digging though the toxic trail the chemical industry has hoisted upon the world and it makes me want to swathe all our women and children in nontoxic bubble wrap.

What’s brought on my latest bubble-wrap urges? Well, just this week, a US congress-mandated committee on breast cancer and the environment issued a report telling us we need to get our shit together on environmental pollutants and breast cancer. It noted only 7% of all 84,000 registered chemicals have had complete toxicological screenings. And of the very few that have been screened, 216, stuff like BPA and pesticides, are linked to breast cancer tumours but only a fraction of the billions spent on breast cancer research goes to environmental health links or prevention.

Many of those chems of concern are hormone disruptors – the topic of a conference I went to in Toronto last week put on by the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health. I talked about it in my latest Ecoholic column on this diverse family of chemicals and what the feds are (or aren’t) doing about them. I heard from scientists like James Brophy and Margaret Keith, who spend their time testing workers in Southern Ontario for elevated rates of breast cancer and boy, have they found some.

It got me thinking about all the women that work with hazardous chemicals for a living, the women that make the stuff we use everyday – from the canned food and beverages we buy to the cars we sit in, the women who style our hair, do our dry cleaning or help heal us in hospitals, the women who work with cleaners, plastics, solvents, the list goes on. Brophy and Keith found, as a whole, this highly exposed group has a 42% greater chance of getting breast cancer, and depending on where they work, that rate jumps dramatically (think women who make any of the metal goods that surround you, the women who grow the non-organic foods you may buy).

Their cancer will likely get blamed on their lifestyle choices, not exercising enough, not eating the right foods. Only the rare doctors will ask them questions about where they work. And, if they want to keep their job, most workers won’t ask questions about what they’re exposed to while they’re on they’re on the clock. Brophy and Keith found that, too.

The New York Times recently called hormone disruptors the tobacco of

our time. As we struggle to get industry and government to admit how bad the problem is, keep in mind that the health crisis around endocrine disruptors is worse – worse because cigarettes were one clear-cut set of products. Hormone disruptors, on the other hand, are in everything: at the very core of our stain-proof, flame-proof, wrinkle-proof, shatter-proof world of goods and services that fill every crevice of our lives.

Like cigarettes, we’re discovering they’re linked to spikes in cancer, infertility, heart disease, and beyond. Like cigarettes, exposure in the womb can create long-term damage to a child. With endocrine disruptors that damage sometimes only comes to the fore decades, even a generation later.

We’re still figuring out how all this will play out. Ask those in the know and they’ll tell you the worst-case combination for biodiversity on this planet will be the one-two punch of endocrine disruptors and climate change. They’re a legacy gift from the fossil fuel industry (yes, it turns out many of those hormone disruptors are petrochemicals, too).

We need, as I said in the column, as Environmental Defence calls it and as an EU parliamentary report is pushing for, reversal of proof, where companies have to prove the safety of their product before putting on the market and not wait until after it’s on shelves and in homes for years before we start second guessing. That would put an end to the practice of using the general public – you, me, our families – as guinea pigs.

Until that happens, I say give us some kind of warning that we’re being exposed to toxins, at least – the way California puts warnings on stuff that contains carcinogens or reproductive toxins. If you want to see that here, tell your politicians, both provincial and federal to get on it. Tell them it’s your body and you don’t want it to be trespassed upon by invisible carcinogens or endocrine disruptors that shouldn’t be on the market. Period.

And sign the petition here.


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