June 1, 2021, 7:49 a.m.
Ana often gets nosebleeds after working on cell phone assembly in a factory in Vietnam. The single mother, who had requested a pseudonym for fear of professional repercussions, also fainted several times. "If I get a little dizzy and sick, I still go to work," she said. "I can lose a lot of bonuses if I stay off work for a day."
Cell phones contain a variety of chemical substances, including plasticizers and flame retardants. And while it is difficult to isolate the health effects of exposure to these and other chemicals because they are so ubiquitous in our environment, studies have linked their use to developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems . A new report released in January found that these health effects are particularly worrying for women who are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in the workplace due to their prevalence in the chemical-heavy industry, poorer working conditions compared to men, and even biological factors.
In general, women have a higher percentage of adipose tissue than men and are therefore more likely to store environmental pollutants. A woman's reproductive cycle can also play a role. The new report, jointly produced by the International Pollutants Elimination Network and the Strategic Alliance for International Chemicals Management, finds that women "vary in their susceptibility to hazardous chemicals in the context of their reproductive cycles" and may be more susceptible to harm from toxic substances Chemicals "at different stages of life such as pregnancy, lactation and menopause."
Electronics and textiles are among the industries that are contributing the most to the problem, said Sara Brosche, one of the report's authors. "These are also two sectors that are predominantly female," she said.
Exposure to chemicals is common in other female-dominated industries as well. When Elva Aguilar went to the hospital with chest pain, shortness of breath, and a headache, doctors diagnosed her with a nervous breakdown. "My breathing wasn't normal," she said. "I had to take short breaths because when I breathed there was a lot of chest pain."
The 55-year-old, who moved to the United States from El Salvador, had been working as a cleaner for more than a year when she developed a skin allergy, dry eyes, back pain and digestive problems. Desperate to explain the onset of her symptoms, she sought help at a local health fair, where a chiropractor asked her what cleaning products she was using. When she was listing the names of some common household products, he suggested another possible cause of her symptoms. "He told me it could be poison," said Aguilar. She switched to non-toxic products and said that even though her symptoms improved, she still had headaches and digestive problems.
"We can't necessarily pin it down to one thing," said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women & # 39; s Voices for the Earth, a Montana-based nonprofit that advocates women's rights in the workplace and studied the effects of toxic chemicals on barber and nail salon workers who are regularly exposed to chemicals in hairsprays and nail glue for acrylic nails. "Much of the problem has to do with cumulative effects that are often ignored," she said. “For example, there is very little research on this group of women who have been exposed to this chemical from the X-Product and who have these health consequences. This type of research – which would be great – is almost never done. ”
There is no global framework to protect workers from chemical exposure, but some jurisdictions are better at implementing protective measures than others. For example, the European Union has stricter regulations than the United States and bans certain chemicals commonly used in products sold in America.
In January 2019, Connecticut passed a bill requiring cosmetics in the state to “meet chemical safety standards set by the European Union,” but it was not passed. Both the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization have urged policy makers to ban the use of asbestos, and more than 60 countries have banned the mineral. However, in the US it is widely used in the construction industry (with the exception of New Jersey, which banned asbestos in 2018). Formaldehyde, a chemical listed as a known carcinogen by the US National Toxicology Program, is banned for use in cosmetics in the EU but is widely used in the US for nail polish and hair straightening treatments.
Hairdresser Emily Baedeker has been in the industry for more than two decades. About nine years ago in Alameda, California, the barber got "crazy migraines" and suffered from fibroids, dermatitis and thyroid problems. "The hair color … made my eyes and nose sting too," she said. She later saw an ad in a trade magazine asking if her symptoms were related to her exposure to chemicals. "The picture was really intense," she said. "It was a stylist wearing a gas mask and the headline was," You Shouldn't Have to Risk Your Health to Color Your Hair. "Research from 2009 found that hairdressers were at higher risk of cancer than the average population.
Both worldwide and in the US, women of skin color are even more at risk from the potential health effects of exposure to chemicals, not only because they work disproportionately in the chemical-heavy industry, but also because they are more likely to work in high-density areas Living level of pollution. Studies show that color communities are more likely to be next to highways and large polluting industries such as oil refineries, meat processing plants, agricultural fields, and toxic waste landfills.
Brosche said more research is needed to understand the health effects of exposure to toxic chemicals and that more pressure should be put on manufacturers to stop using them. If products are found to have health effects, she wants manufacturers to be held accountable, including the cost of patient medical care.
Meanwhile, Baedeker said her experience opened her eyes to the potential dangers of working in the hairdressing industry: "I had never thought about what these chemicals could do to my body."