Reproductive Rights Fight Moves to Environment

As more research links environmental toxins to fertility problems, reproductive-health advocates are expanding their fight and taking aim at industrial polluters.

Monique Harden

(WOMENSENEWS)-Monique Harden reviewed a list of the toxic chemicals that research scientists identified in her body and found an astonishing brew: to be exact, 77 industry-made chemicals.

An attorney and environmental activist in New Orleans, Harden volunteered for a “body burden” sampling to be taken of her blood and urine. It was for a study on chemical contamination conducted by Mount Sinai School of Medicine inNew York, in collaboration with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research group and Commonweal, a health and research institute in Bolinas, Calif.

Harden came away from the experience with an awful question on her mind. “I have chemicals in my body that can damage my ability to reproduce,” she said. “Will I be able to have healthy children?”

This question is stirring women's health advocates who are connecting the dots between environmental and reproductive health.

California Governor Signs Chemicals Ban

Wilma Chan

Concern about chemical harm to women and their developing fetuses led California Assemblymember and Majority Leader Wilma Chan, a Democrat from Oakland, to introduce last February the first legislation to ban polybrominated diphenyl ethers-PBDEs-used in upholstery and plastic casings to retard fire. The ban was signed on August 9 by Gov. Gray Davis and will take effect five years from now.

Chan was prompted by a 2001 report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which found that small amounts of PDBEs can pass to a fetus through the placenta, causing nervous system damage, brain impairment or thyroid hormone imbalance. “Large numbers of women may carry these chemicals in their bodies and pass them on,” said Chan.

The California Manufacturers and Technology Association, a trade group in Sacramento, dropped its opposition after Chan specifically designated in the bill the two PBDE compounds that harm human health, said Gino deCaro, association spokesperson. Conservative lawmakers continued their opposition, objecting to increased regulation by the government.

“I found it totally ironic that conservative legislators are concerned with harm to the fetus when it deals with abortion, but not when the health of the future baby is concerned,” said Chan.

Emerging Science Links Chemicals to Fertility Problems

Emerging science in the past 10 years is linking tiny amounts of synthetic chemicals to infertility, early puberty, lowered sperm counts and other disruptions of normal childbearing and child development, according to Karen L. Perry, deputy director of the Environment and Health Program of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public policy group in Washington, D.C.

The suspect chemicals are diverse, but share a knack for accumulating in the body and interfering with normal hormonal signaling, a central building block to healthy reproductive function, said Perry. The harm from chemicals in an adult's body may cause developmental problems or reproductive dysfunction in the next generation, she noted.

Out of the 87,000 synthetic chemicals that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says have been released into the environment through manufacturing or waste disposal, 200 have been identified as hormone-disrupters, according to Dr. Theo Colborn, senior project scientist at the World Wildlife Fund.

Groundbreaking analysis of fish and bird studies by Colborn, appearing in “Our Stolen Future,” a 1996 book that she co-authored, first drew attention to the potential dangers to humans. Since then, research has exploded. Tens of thousands of studies have been conducted, said Colborn, who adds 500 new studies to her database each month. Tulane University opened a center devoted to the topic; courses are included on most campuses; specialized journals have emerged.

Chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties (alternatively known as endocrine-disrupters or reproductive toxins) cause a syndrome like that triggered by diesthylstibestrol or DES, a medication prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s to prevent miscarriages, said Perry.

As adults, the daughters of many women who took DES were unable to bear children of their own, and sons suffered impaired reproductive capacities, as well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are a lot of chemicals out there like DES that can get into the womb and change how the cells have to split or move about and interfere with the basic construction of the body. These are more subtle effects than what are commonly thought of as birth defects,” said Colborn.

Many chemicals, including organochlorines-a vast category of toxic chemicals used in plastics, paper, pesticides and industrial chemicals-and pthalates-a softening agent commonly used in toys and beauty products-may harm women's and men's reproductive abilities, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.

A New Twist to Reproductive Rights

Women's activists are now extending their concern about reproductive decisions, including the right to bear a child, to the environment. “Who decides whether babies are born full of toxics?” said Charlotte Brody, founder and executive director of Health Care Without Harm, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that campaigns for environmentally responsible health care.

A recent analysis of reducing the dangers from the toxic chemical dioxin in the food chain was commissioned by the Bush administration and released by the Washington, D.C., Institute of Medicine of The National Academies in July.

Recognizing that fetuses and breastfeeding infants are at particular risk, the report urges girls and women to drink low-fat milk and trim fat from beef throughout their pre-pregnancy lives, rather than challenging the sources of dioxin in the food chain, such as the prolific use of animal feed coated with dioxin-laced fat.

Dr. Robert Lawrence, chair of the institute's research committee, agrees that dioxin is dangerous. But, he said, “You can't outright ban the use of 11 billion pounds of fat in animal food a year because of practical realities of political pressure from the meat council. Under our recommendations, women are the beneficiaries because they have an added incentive to modify their diets.”

Brody, however, bridles at the idea that women have anything to gain from the current situation. Dioxin is a proven toxin, she said. “Suggesting that toxic problems can be eliminated through lifestyle choices is a fantasy. It builds guilt in women and removes responsibility from where it belongs: with corporations that make toxic chemicals and from governments that regulate them.”

C.T. Howlett, Jr., council executive director of Chlorine Chemistry Council, a business association based in Arlington, Va., said dioxin intakes for the average person have been studied and shown to be safe. “From a regulatory perspective, the dioxin intake level of the average U.S. resident is below tolerable levels set by several respected public health agencies using adequate safety factors,” he said. “And according to a recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, actual blood levels of dioxin in the average U.S. resident are below the level of analytical detection.” None of the studies that he cited, however, consider the potential damage to a developing fetus or the harm of small amounts of dioxin on the reproductive system.

Solutions in Changing Chemical Release Standards

Valerie deFillipo, a senior director in the Washington, D.C., office of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is not so calm about the situation. She predicts that hormone-disrupting chemicals will become a major reproductive concern in coming decades.

But, she said, solutions must come from those who introduce the products to the environment and that women shouldn't be expected to adapt their behavior to the threat.

“The danger is if the issue gets distorted in some way so that it restricts the freedom of pregnant women,” she says, “simply because they ingest what all of us are ingesting.”

One solution-recommended by Physicians for Social Responsibility and others-calls for removing chemicals from use until they are proven to be safe and harmless at low-level exposure, an approach used in Sweden. In June, San Francisco adopted this “precautionary principle,” the first U.S. political entity to do so, as a framework for developing laws to protect public health and the environment.

Still stunned by her “body burden,” Monique Harden agrees with the precautionary principle. “We need to get this stuff out of the environment,” she said, “and out of products. Period. It's not just me who is contaminated. We've all got a body burden of chemicals and none of us asked for it.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist in New York. Margie Kelly is a writer in Eugene, Oregon.

For more information:

Health Care Without Harm:

Our Stolen Future Information Center:

Environmental Working Group: