(WOMENSENEWS)--Can working in a female-dominated industry boost a woman's risk of disease?
Can increased exposure to household chemicals make her less healthy than a man?
And are authorities showing gender bias by neglecting to answer these questions?
In the name of environmental health, women's advocates are striving to address gender discrepancy in scientific research that they say leaves women's susceptibility to toxic chemicals understudied and underaddressed.
"Our increased use of synthetic chemicals is raising women's risk of breast cancer, diabetes, infertility and other health problems," says Theo Colborn, president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colo. "Exposure to these chemicals in the womb is affecting women's children, raising their risk of autism, birth defects and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder."
Most research on these problems ignores women and their offspring and instead focuses on male study subjects, Colborn says.
After decades of neglect, the link between women's health and environmental pollution is receiving more scientific scrutiny.
This month, for instance, the Oakland-based California Breast Cancer Research Program launched a $23 million state-funded initiative to examine how individual chemicals are linked to breast cancer and how California can make its chemical manufacturing safer.
Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 U.S. women and kills 12 percent of patients within five years of their diagnosis. Researchers who previously focused on its treatment are now paying more attention to its cause. And like other pressing health problems, the cause of breast cancer may be linked to toxic chemicals polluting the soil, air and water.
Plastic Ingredient Scrutinized
On April 14, the federal National Toxicology Program acknowledged for the first time that bisphenol A--found in food can lining, baby bottles, compact discs, sports equipment, medical devices and household electronics--may cause serious health problems.
Previous studies found the toxin in the bodies of 93 percent of U.S. adolescent girls and women. It also contributes to early puberty in girls, who are now developing breasts two years earlier than they did in the 1950s, and breast cancer in women, which is 90 percent more common than during the 50s.
"Like many toxic chemicals, bisphenol A is so prevalent that it may never be completely phased out," says Colborn. "But this may finally spur us to look for healthier alternatives."
On April 18, Wal-Mart announced it would stop selling food and drink packaging that contains bisphenol A in its Canadian stores and phase out these products in U.S. stores. Last week, Toys"R"Us and CVS also pledged to pull products containing the chemical.
Though health advocates are applauding these moves, they caution that bisphenol A is just one among thousands of chemicals that can damage women's bodies.
"In our daily lives, we are rarely exposed to these substances in isolation," notes "State of the Evidence 2008," a March report on the link between the environment and breast cancer from the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund. "And we likely have low-level exposures over the course of weeks, months and years."
Federal Efforts Led to Discoveries
The push to examine how chemicals affect women got a boost in 1991, when the federal government opened its Office of Women's Health, which promotes gender-balanced research. The same year, the National Institutes of Health launched the Women's Health Initiative, which in 2002 linked the synthetic chemicals in hormone replacement therapy--used for three decades to treat the symptoms of menopause--to women's increased risk of breast cancer, heart attack and stroke.
In 1993, Congress mandated that female subjects be included in scientific studies. Since then, researchers discovered important ways in which women's susceptibility to health problems differs from men's.
Women have heart attack symptoms that are milder and more like indigestion. Compared to men, they have a fourfold higher risk of cancer death if they smoke. Females are also very different than males as research subjects.
"Men are simply easier to study," says Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at New York's University of Rochester. "Their genitals are externally visible, and their hormone levels don't fluctuate as much."
Researchers have often taken a direct route when studying synthetics, tracking one chemical at a time in exclusively male subjects.
"When scientists see a clear mechanism of action, they follow it," says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Oakland-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
For her 2007 book "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry," Malkan pored over hundreds of studies on the chemicals in cosmetics, used primarily by women. She discovered the majority of studies only included male subjects, or only focused on male health problems such as testicular cancer.
Women's Research Still Lacking
Health advocates say that just as female study subjects don't get adequate attention in the lab, women's concerns don't get adequate funding.
The Washington-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, for instance, planned to study how sterilizing agents and other workplace chemicals affect nurses and nursing aides, 92 percent of whom are women. Announced in 2001, the project has been stalled for seven years.
Colborn estimates that between $300 million and $400 million is needed to investigate the effects of synthetic chemicals on women's and children's endocrine systems, but says the U.S. government has devoted only $10 million so far.
Up to 70 percent of breast cancer cases may be attributed to environmental factors, according to a 1993 Department of Health and Human Services study. After making this finding 15 years ago, the federal government failed to earmark money to catalog the chemicals that can trigger breast cancer. Last year, the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass., took this initiative, scouring the research to compile a list of 216 compounds that cause breast tumors in lab animals.
"Only 11 of these chemicals are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health so workers exposed to them on a regular basis must be evaluated for health safety," says Julia Brody, Silent Spring's executive director.
Advocates say environmental health evaluations are sorely lacking for nail salon workers, 95 percent of whom are female. Even though the toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl in nail care products are linked to cancer and reproductive problems--and even though a growing number of salon workers are suffering spontaneous abortions--the number of studies on these workers is "astonishingly low," charges a February 2007 report by Women's Voices for the Earth, based in Missoula, Mont.
Only 7 percent of the 100,000 synthetic chemicals manufactured since World War II have been screened for complete toxicological data. And of thousands of diseases affecting both sexes, only two-thirds have been studied in women, according to the Washington-based Institute of Medicine.
The Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act of 2007 would provide $200 million to scientific study but is stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is blocking the legislation because he objects to funding mandates to study one disease over another.
The Protecting Pregnant Women and Children From Perchlorate Act of 2007 is scheduled for a Senate hearing in May. The bill would establish safe drinking water standards for perchlorate, a rocket propellant that impairs thyroid function and that contaminates the soil and water of 400 U.S. testing sites.
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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For more information:
Breast Cancer Fund "State of the Evidence 2008"
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