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Global Pollution Affects Women the Most
Pollution harms everyone, but in the developing world, where environmental protections are more lax, toxic chemicals present real danger. This particularly harms women, as they are “especially sensitive” to pollutants, according to health experts. They’re more likely to develop disease (breast cancer in particular is on the rise) and to pass chemicals on to fetuses through the umbilical cord. The biggest threats are to women who work in industrial settings, where safety standards for workers are often “shoddy or nonexistent.” To fix this, governments will need to work together with environmental and health organizations, with an eye to the special needs of women.
According to Maria Neira, director of Public Health and Environment for the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva, "Research shows that environmental factors are responsible for 23 percent of our overall global disease burden". She estimates that addressing this pollution will prevent the deaths of 6 million women per year..
A recent Lancet study found that globally, two-thirds of the 2.6 million annual deaths from air pollution stem from indoor contamination or people inhaling carbon monoxide and fine particles from open fires and wood-burning stoves.
"Since homes in the developing world are often poorly ventilated, stay-at-home mothers and their children are at especially high risk for lung disease and other problems related to this cause," says Sumi Mehta, director of programs for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which is based in Washington, D.C., and promotes biogas, smoke hoods and other abatement measures in India, Bangladesh, China and Africa.
Women are also under increased threat from the 100,000 synthetic substances used in industrial production across the globe. "The female hormonal system is especially sensitive to toxic chemicals in the environment," says Theo Colborn, a research scientist and founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colo.
Some of these chemicals are "endocrine disruptors," substances that interfere with hormone signaling, such as the pesticide atrazine, used more heavily in developing countries than in developed ones. Others are "persistent organic pollutants," or POPs, organic compounds that resist breakdown and include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, found in the auto exhaust that pollutes cities in developing countries.
When women come into contact with these substances in polluted soil, air and water, toxic chemicals can pass through their skin, nostrils or mucus membranes and into their bloodstreams, their body fat and the umbilical cords that nourish their unborn children.
An estimated 19 percent of cancer, a leading cause of female fatality worldwide, and on the rise in developing countries, can be attributed to environmental causes, reports WHO.
"We're seeing a global increase in breast cancer, now the most common cancer in women," says Kathryn Rodgers, a research assistant at the Silent Spring Institute, in Massachusetts. "The biggest jumps are in the Middle East, central Latin America and Asia."
Authorities say that compared to women in the industrialized world, those in developing countries face a greater risk of health problems that can be attributed to the linked issues of more pollution and less regulation.
Despite these challenges, developing countries--often at the urging of proactive nongovernmental organizations--are working to reform their policies with help from the U.N. and WHO.
"Governments are learning that if you reduce one source of pollution, you can address a whole slew of health markers and get more bang for your buck," says Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves' Mehta. "By reducing indoor air pollution, for instance, you can help address cataracts, lung disease and heart disease among women; low birth weight and pneumonia among children; and the incidence of cancer and burns among everyone."
As activists celebrate recent victories for women's environment-related health, they note their campaign is winning some unexpected converts.
In February 2013, China acknowledged for the first time that pollution within its borders had created "cancer villages," places where contaminated water and soil have contributed to an 80 percent spike in the country's cancer rate since 1970 (including higher-than-ever-rates of breast cancer). China pledged to track its use of 58 toxic chemicals and stop industrial production of some known carcinogens.
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