Editor’s note

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Whether it’s climate change or our daily exposure to toxins in the air, water or food, the environment affects our health, and the effects are different for women and men. In this issue of Network, we offer a range of articles that touch on environmental health impacts specifically for women in Canada.

We invited contributions from organizations and individuals CWHN has worked with over the years, and who continue to provide the most up-to-date analyses of environmental impacts on women’s health. These include Breast Cancer Action Montreal (BCAM), Réseau québécois des femmes en environnement (RQFE), Women and Health Protection (WHP), National Networks on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH), DES Action Canada, and Women’s Healthy Environments Network (WHEN). These groups, and others in Canada, play key roles in translating research on the environment and women’s health into action, and into government policies. And with our own focus on the environment this year, we at CWHN are excited to join this company.
This issue includes two articles on the topic of climate change that explore the impacts on women’s health. One is from the perspective of Inuit women in Nunatsiavut (Inuit territory in Newfoundland and Labrador), and the other is an analysis of Canadian climate change policies and what is needed if they are to address women’s health concerns. One of our goals with this issue is to reach federal policy-makers with these messages. To this end, certain articles will be summarized into briefs to be presented to government early in the New Year.

The need for gender-based analysis of environmental effects on health is urgent.  Since the 1930s, scientists have produced an impressive body of evidence to show the different effects of exposures on women and men, and these have been documented by Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring; Dr. Theo Colburn, author of Our Stolen Future; Miriam Wyman, editor of Sweeping the Earth: Women Taking Action for a Healthy Planet, and more recently, Dr. Devra Lee Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, among others.

Many environmental toxins are endocrine disrupters that disturb the hormones involved in multiple developmental processes in our bodies. The effects vary according to when in the development process exposure occurs, but they vary even more, perhaps, between women/girls and men/boys because of our different hormonal systems and developmental processes.

The first synthetic estrogen, diethylstilbestrol (DES), for example, is an endocrine disrupter. Prescribed widely to a generation of pregnant women before its dangers to their developing fetuses were reported, DES offers a warning to scientists about the potentially harmful effects of other endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment and the need for (pre)caution. DES demonstrates the different effects on male and female offspring exposed in utero, and confirms how endocrine disrupters can trigger a small change in development that may result in a range of health problems, including cancer, years or even decades later. It also shows that even trace amounts of certain chemicals can have drastic health impacts.

So, what are we doing with all of this knowledge?

It seems that a shift is happening. We are seeing more pesticide bans, restrictions on some toxins such as bisphenol A, consumers demanding safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, and efforts to reduce our impacts on the climate. It’s now time for further effective and enforceable government policies that reflect the research and the growing public awareness about the environmental factors affecting our health. Moving the awareness and knowledge into the realm of government policy is what this issue of Network is all about. The shift is happening, but we have a long way to go.

Finally, for readers who may not yet have heard, Director of Communications, Kathleen O’Grady, who was on maternity leave until recently, will not be returning to CWHN. Kathleen has taken a new position in Ottawa. She will be greatly missed at CWHN and we sincerely wish her all the best. Kathleen has been Editor of this magazine since 2002 and is leaving rather large shoes to fill. Among many of her accomplishments, she developed Network into a unique publication that presents research on women’s health in Canada in an accessible and attractive format, reaching a broad audience. She has set a high standard for me as the new editor. I look forward to the challenge and welcome your input as well. Please let us know what you think or if you have suggestions for articles. The next issue of the magazine in the spring of 2009 will focus on mental health in Canada. Don’t miss it!

Ellen Reynolds
Director of Communications