Women are affected by environmentally linked illnesses far more than men are. Eighty to ninety percent of those afflicted with environmental sensitivities, chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis and fibromyalgia, also pegged as “21st century illnesses,” are women.
The causes of these conditions are unknown. However, researchers suspect that there are a number of factors at work.
One of the stressors commonly linked with these conditions is our exposure to a growing number of toxic chemicals. Tens of thousands of chemicals have been released into the North American ecosystem since the Second World War. Our exposure to pollutants – in our air, soil, consumer products, food and water – have been linked with cancer, and damage to our reproductive, respiratory and neurological systems, and may disrupt the normal development of children. An overload of other stressors, common in our fast-paced world, including a lack of sleep, a lack of physical activity, poor nutrition or emotional stress, can “tip the scales,” resulting in exhaustion and illness.
Environmental illnesses are sometimes referred to as “invisible illnesses,” because people who suffer from these conditions often look well. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. Many people with these conditions find their lives profoundly affected by crushing fatigue, pain all over and “brain fog,” as well as myriad other symptoms, from headaches to a rapid heartbeat.
Environmental illnesses are significantly more common among women than men. Why? No one knows for sure but various factors may make women particularly vulnerable.
At Home: Women are more likely than men to clean and manage the home environment. This can expose women to a variety of toxic substances, in cleaning and laundry products, pesticides, foods and solvents.
At Work: While men are more likely to have an accident at work, women are more likely to develop occupational diseases. This may be because women are exposed to different occupational hazards (for example, when working in a hair or nail salon) or because certain female-dominated fields may not be as well regulated to protect workers from toxic exposures as some male-dominated fields (such as the automotive industry).
Cosmetics: Women are more likely to use cosmetic products, such as hair dye, make-up, perfumes and skin products, many of which contain potentially harmful chemicals.
Physiological Differences: Research has shown that in at least some situations, women react differently than men when exposed to the same toxic substances. For example, several studies have shown that when women and men are exposed to the same toxic substances in the workplace (in a building that causes Sick Building Syndrome, say), women consistently report having more symptoms.
A number of physiological differences might explain this. Because women have, on average, 10 percent more body fat than men, they are able to store more fat-soluble toxins. Women may be more vulnerable to toxic exposures because they have a lower body weight. Finally, hormonal differences may also affect the way a person’s body responds to chemicals.
Socioeconomic Differences: In North America, poverty rates are higher among women than men. A woman living in poverty is more likely to live in housing that exposes her to environmental toxins, such as asbestos, lead-based paint and mould. She may live in a neighbourhood located near contaminated soil, an air-polluting factory or a landfill site. She may have a job, as an esthetician, farmworker, cleaner or factory worker, for example, that exposes her to occupational hazards.
Living near or below the poverty line can also mean more stress, and can make it more difficult to exercise regularly, get a good night’s sleep, and eat nutrious foods, which, in turn, affect a person’s ability to cope with environmental illnesses.
Environmentally linked illnesses are a major cause of illness and death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
Environmental hazards are responsible for about a quarter of the total burden of disease worldwide. As many as 13 million deaths could be prevented every year by making our environments healthier.
Environmental factors, such as pollution, workplace hazards, radiation and climate change, influence 85 of the 102 categories of diseases listed in the 2004 “World Health Report” (the WHO’s leading publication).
Examples of illnesses and conditions currently being linked with environmental exposures include:
- Testicular and ovarian cancer related to exposure to endocrine disrupters
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain tumours and other cancers related to exposure to pesticides
- An estimated 30 percent of lung cancer cases in developed countries due to environmental causes, such as occupational hazards and outdoor air pollution
- Possible link between increased risk of leukemia and exposure to electromagnetic fields
- Breast cancer linked with environmental exposures to endocrine disrupters, heavy metals, solvents and other chemicals present in outdoor and indoor air, foods (herbicides) and some consumer products (such as cosmetics and PVC plastic)
Learning and Behavioural Disabilities
- Inattention and lowered IQ after exposure to lead, mercury, PCBs, dioxins, some pesticides, solvents and flame retardants
- It is suspected that various environmental contaminants may contribute to the development of autism
Birth Defects, Perinatal and Reproductive Problems
- Women exposed to various chemicals and environmental risk factors more likely to have low birth-weight babies, premature babies and infants with various health problems. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, such as PBDEs, BPA and phthalates (plastics), dioxins, furans, some pesticides, and heavy metals, such as lead and mercury
- Undescended testicles related to exposure to PCBs, dioxin and pesticides
- A portion of congenital anomalies related to pregnant women’s exposure to chemicals and radioactivity
- Reduced fertility in both women and men linked to lead, solvent and pesticide exposure. Changes in sperm quality and male reproductive health linked with phthalates, PCBs and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals
- Miscarriages associated with exposure to lead, solvents and pesticides
Heart and Respiratory Problems
- Each year, approximately 2.5 million deaths from cardiovascular disease attributable to environmental factors, such as lead exposure and air pollution
- Each year, more than 1.5 million deaths worldwide as a result of respiratory infections attributable to outdoor and indoor air pollution
- Number of individuals with asthma has increased fourfold in last 20 years – air pollution a contributing factor
- Increased number of doctor visits, hospital admissions and deaths with high smog index
- Crowded housing and exposure to air pollutants in the workplace and at home increase number of cases of tuberculosis
Some people are more prone to environmentally linked illnesses than others. Those at greatest risk include children, women and older people. As the fetus is at the greatest risk of all, pregnant women need to be particularly cautious of “hidden exposures” in their environment – health hazards such as pesticides, paints and solvents, lead, plastics, harsh cleaning products, asbestos and heavy metals.
For more information on environmentally linked illnesses, visit the Creating a Healthy Environment for Kids website.
Prevention and the Precautionary Principle: Better Safe than Sorry
Preventive measures could substantially reduce the incidence of many of these diseases. For example, ensuring clean drinking water, reducing air pollution, regulating toxic substances and stopping climate change would all reduce these health impacts.
Due to increasing evidence that links these and other illnesses with the environment, many environmental and health activists advocate using the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle states that when there is an activity that could threaten human health or the environment, precautions should be taken before there is complete scientific proof that the activity is harmful. The safety of potential toxins should be tested before they are used and before they can cause harm.
To learn more about the Precautionary Principle, visit the Science and Environmental Health Network.