02 February 2011

Organizing at the Intersections of Reproductive and Environmental Justice

Very proudly, the Ms. Foundation for Women supports an amazing cadre of organizations that are blazing new trails to advance environmental and reproductive justice every day. And if the news from one such grantee, Women's Voices for the Earth, is any predictor, 2011 is off to an incredible start.

Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) is a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that impact the health of women and girls -- who, in fact, have largely been overlooked in research about the effects on humans of the more than 85,000 chemicals estimated to be use in the US environment today. Over the last month, WVE has taken bold and concrete action to protect the well-being of women and girls, raising awareness about how these chemicals compromise women's reproductive health, pushing for increased regulation of consumer products, and organizing to ban one particular toxic substance currently in widespread use.

Though little discussed in the national media, activists and everyday women alike know that women face environmental dangers unique to those faced by men: women, on average, use more personal care products, containing potentially dangerous chemicals, than men do; spend more time in the home and using cleaning products; and have higher fat reserves -- where toxins are stored -- than their male counterparts do. And women of color, low-income women, and immigrant women tend to be at even greater risk for exposure to environmental toxins than their middle class, white peers -- either because they live in areas that are rife with toxic and hazardous materials or work in industries with few protections against exposure to chemicals.

Yet despite these higher, and increasingly well-documented, levels of exposure, regulations to protect women and girls (and all others in the US, for that mater) from toxins transmitted through water, air, food and consumer products remain shockingly lax.

That's a problem not just for this generation of women, but for future generations of all genders: fetuses and breastfeeding infants are exposed to many of the chemicals present in their mother's bodies, and what the full impact of those cumulative exposures will be, we don't yet know. Meanwhile, the reproductive health of those of us currently on the planet may have already been compromised: rates of breast cancer, endometriosis, and early onset puberty are all on the rise, as WVE points out, and there's great suspicion that exposure to the ever-present cocktail of toxic substances in our environment may be playing a role in those rising numbers.

So what can be done to change all of this -- to protect our health and our planet along with it? WVE has become a model organization in terms of taking action to promote the change we seek. In the first month of 2011 alone, the group has already:
  • Joined with more than 80 groups in calling on the EPA to ban triclosan from use in consumer products. An anti-bacterial/anti-fungal agent found in products ranging from "hand sanitizer to toothpaste to kids pajamas," triclosan has been linked to both hormone disruption and a potential increased risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile, as WVE points out, scientists have yet to find proof that it's more effective at preventing the spread of germs than good old soap and water. In addition to putting out this direct call to the EPA to end the use of this potentially dangerous substance, WVE will continue to engage its constituents around the issue, and push back against the cleaning industry as it seeks to minimize the dangers this chemical poses to women and their families.

  • Spoken out about, and raised awareness of, toxins in nail salons and the plight of nail salon workers. Last week, the international radio program Making Contact ran an
    important piece on the dangers nail salons pose to the women who work in them -- usually low-income, immigrant women of color who have little recourse to demand better workplace protections. The Toxic Truth About Nail Salons” features commentary by WVE's Director of Programs and Policy, Jamie Silberberger, who explains why we need to get serious -- now -- about regulating conditions across the cosmetics industry.
  • Worked to ensure that strong environmental regulations -- specifically, those that require the disclosure of ingredients in cleaning products -- are implemented at the state and national level. While the cleaning industry does its best weaken regulations like these, WVE is working to strengthen them, organizing a cadre of more than 20 groups to submit comments to the EPA committee currently tasked with creating national standards for safer cleaning products. The goal is to convince both the EPA and state-level agencies that stringent requirements for product disclosure are in the best interests of consumers, and WVE's organizing efforts could go a long way in shaping the committee's final decision about what ingredients manufacturers must disclose, and what they can continue to hide.
These are exactly the kind of multi-tier, collaborative strategies that have the power to make a real difference in women's lives. And the best part is, WVE isn't advocating in a vacuum: the Ms. Foundation funds a host of groups making critical connections between the environment and reproductive health, rights and justice; organizations whose work echoes and complements each other in ways that make achieving long-term, systemic change infinitely more possible. In fact, many of these groups are making great strides by working in coalition: Last fall, WVE joined with two other grantees, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, as members of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative to ensure passage of a groundbreaking ordinance in San Francisco that aims to protect nail salon workers from toxic chemicals in the workplace.

Ms. Foundation grantees Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and Alaska Community Action on Toxins (ACAT) -- each of whom address the impact of environmental and workplace dangers on the health and well-being of women, low-income people, people of color and immigrants -- are also changing the environmental landscape for women and girls. In the coming months, ACAT will work to pass both a ban on toxic flame retardants and a bill intended to phase the use of dangerous chemicals in local schools. And MassCOSH will continue to train women who work in the cleaning industry -- many of them immigrants -- about how they can protect themselves from exposure to chemicals in the workplace -- by reading labels, and by standing up for their rights at work.

With such a range of groups like these working creatively -- and effectively -- to organize at the intersections of environmental and reproductive justice, our children's children may just have a shot at inheriting the earth after all.

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