Women’s health and the environment

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Why sex and gender matter in terms of health and the environment

The need for a sex- and gender-based analysis of environmental effects on health is urgent. 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.

Since the 1930s, scientists have produced an impressive body of evidence to show the different effects of toxic exposures on women and men. And in recent years, women are finally beginning to be heard on the international scene about the impacts of climate change—demanding input into decision-making around climate change that recognizes the different impacts on women and men, girls and boys.

The following resources provide selected background research, links to some of the work by CWHN and our partner organizations, and practical resources that inform and inspire action.

For more information: The CWHN databases, from which these resources are drawn, are updated regularly with new resources. For more information about women’s health and the environment, please search our databases with terms such as “environment,” “toxins,” and “climate change.” Search our database.

Women and the environment

Network magazine special issue on the environment and women’s health
Fall/winter 2008-09, Volume 11, Number 1

Includes articles on climate change in Canada’s North, climate change policy, toxins in toiletries, the falling age of puberty in girls, drugs in the environment, and much more.

Full Circle: Drugs, the Environment and our Health
By Sharon Batt from Women and Health Protection, Network, Fall/winter 2008-09, Volume 11, Number 1

Discusses the fact that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have been detected in Canada’s lakes, rivers, streams and tap water and other chemicals from food and drug products have also been detected, as have veterinary and agricultural chemicals. Notes that new biologics, genetic therapies and genetically modified foods are more recent-comers that could end up in this “chemical soup.” Examines this neglected form of environmental contamination from a public health perspective, with particular attention to its impact on women’s health.

Women & Environments International Magazine
Magazine based at York University in Toronto, which examines women and environments from feminist and anti-racist perspectives.

National Networks on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH)
NNEWH is focused on creating strategies for effective change through an understanding of relevant policy issues related to the health of all women in Canada. Special documents to look for include:

  1. Consuming Chemicals Policy Papers — A series of papers presented at a policy forum in Ottawa in February 2009 on the health impacts of a variety of toxic chemicals (Forthcoming 2009).
  2. Gender & Ecology Papers – Student-generated paper series, designed to facilitate discussions of gendered environmental issues.
  3. NNEWH and Women and Health Protection will coordinate input on women’s health impacts related to the federal Chemical Management Plan (See section on government resources).

Women and Health Protection (WHP)
WHP is a coalition of community groups, researchers, journalists and activists concerned about the safety of pharmaceutical drugs. The group keeps a close watch over ongoing changes in the federal health protection legislation and examines the impact of those changes on women's health. Their documents make clear recommendations to the government for Canadian legislation that truly provides "health protection."

Prevent Cancer Now
National organization focused on making primary prevention of cancer a priority through education, legislation and policy changes.

Women’s Healthy Environments Network (WHEN)
National non-profit charitable organization based in Toronto working with communities on prevention initiatives addressing environmental links to health.

Canadian Network on Human Health and the Environment
CWHN is a member of this network of non-governmental, research, health professional and policy organizations that presents seminars (webinars) and has a process in collaboration with Health Canada to select delegates for government consultations.

Climate change and women’s health

Women and Climate Change: Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacities
By Lorena Aguilar from State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World

From Worldwatch Institute (US) on global issues, this report looks at the international impacts of climate change on women.

Climate Change and Canada: An Untapped Opportunity to Advance Gender Equality?
By Jimena Eyzaguirre, Network, Volume 11, Number 1, Fall/winter 2008-09

Discusses this lead-up to international discussions on a path beyond the Kyoto Protocol that is an opportunity to reflect on Canada’s action on climate change. A number of issues related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping communities adapt to climate change impacts are being discussed. However, addressing gender differences in government policies and programs has not been among the topics of discussion.

Boom, Bust and Beyond: Women’s Perspectives on the Mountain Pine Beetle
Report from a forum in northern British Columbia, 2008

Reports on a forum in March 2008, when women gathered at the University of Northern British Columbia to explore the social, economic and health-related impacts of the mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation, and to identify issues and concerns as described by women in beetle-affected communities. The forum “Boom, Bust and Beyond: Women’s Perspectives on the Mountain Pine Beetle” demonstrated why and how the beetle epidemic requires a gendered lens to fully understand its impacts.

Gender CC–Women for Climate Justice
A global network of women, gender activists and experts working for gender and climate justice.

Climate for Change
Gender equality and climate policy project in Europe with the goal of improving women’s participation in decision-making related to climate change.

Nasivvik – Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments
Research Centre at Laval University focused on the health impacts for Inuit people in Canada’s Arctic.

Toxins, hormone disruption and women’s health

Toxins in Toiletries
By Madeleine Bird, Network, Fall/winter 2008-09, Volume 11, Number 1

Discusses how toxic chemicals that have the potential to cause chronic or life-threatening harm (carcinogens, reproductive and developmental toxins, allergens, sensitizers), to change the way our body’s hormonal systems function (endocrine disruptors), or to change our DNA (mutagens), sometimes permanently so that those changes are passed on to our children, can be found in beauty aisles and at cosmetics counters.

Review Essay: Early Puberty for Girls. The New ‘Normal’ and Why We Need to be Concerned
By Kathleen O’Grady, Network, Fall/winter 2008-09, Volume 11, Number 1

Discusses research that now indicates that early menarche is a known risk factor for breast cancer developed later in life.

State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment
Edited by Janet Gray from the Breast Cancer Fund (US), 2008

A comprehensive report on the environmental exposures linked to increased breast cancer risk, including natural and synthetic estrogens; xenoestrogens and other endocrine-disrupting compounds; carcinogenic chemicals and radiation.

Hormone Disrupters and Women’s Health: Reasons for Concern
Collaborative on Health and the Environment, 2008

Informative and accessible brochure on the topic of endocrine disruption and women’s health.

The Falling Age of Puberty in US Girls: What We Know, What We Need to Know
By Sandra Steingraber from the Breast Cancer Fund (US), 2007

The first comprehensive review of the literature on the falling age of puberty.

Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic
By Liz Armstrong, Guy Dauncey, and Anne Wordsworth, New Society Publishers, 2007

A ground-breaking book that provides solutions for everyone from individuals to big business to labour to government. Contains practical tools for parents, youth and NGOs.

Evra and the Environment
By Suzanne Elston for Women and Health Protection, 2004

Discusses Evra, the first contraceptive hormonal patch approved for use in Canada, and the risk, when discarded, of the patch leaking the residual hormone into the ecosystem and polluting our waterways.

DES Action Canada Hormonal Pollution Alert
See the resource kit for DES Action’s Hormonal Pollution Alert project, under “Publications” on the website for resources and background on endocrine disruption and the impacts of the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES).

Our Stolen Future website
Evidence-based resources on a site inspired by the book Our Stolen Future by Dr Theo Colburn et al.

Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database
An online database and guide that rates cosmetics and toiletries according to the safety of their ingredients.

Sandra Steingraber’s website
Poet, ecologist and author of numerous books on environmental links to cancer and other diseases (Having Faith, Living Downstream).

Breast Cancer Action Montreal (BCAM) Safe Cosmetics Campaign
Breast Cancer Action Montreal (BCAM) is a non-profit activist/advocacy group directed by women who have been sensitized to the trauma of breast cancer (affecting themselves or someone close to them) and who are committed — long-term — to erasing the disease. They educate about environmental toxins linked to breast cancer.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (US)
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is working to protect women’s health by eliminating the use of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. (See also Breast Canada Action Montreal)

Breast Cancer Fund (US)
Source of evidence-based research and action on breast cancer prevention, especially environmental links to breast cancer, from some of the most respected experts in this field.

Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer
WHEN is a non-profit, charitable organization that works with communities on prevention initiatives addressing environmental links to health. This video was conceived in response to the growing public debate about the implications of our contaminated world on the health of women. Clips from Exposure can be viewed on YouTube.

Toxic Trespass
This film from the Women’s Healthy Environments Network (WHEN) investigates the growing evidence that we are conducting a large-scale toxicological experiment on our children, and explores what some scientists, doctors, activists and others are doing about it.

Links to government programs and resources

Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity
Health Canada, 2008

An assessment report published in 2008 that compiles research from a Canada-wide team of experts on climate change.

Chemical Management Plan
Chemical Substances, 2007
A Government of Canada initiative to review and assess chemicals in use and proposed for use in Canada. (See Canadian Environmental Network for information on public engagement).

Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC):  A National Profile of In Utero and Lactational Exposure to Environmental Contaminants
Report on a five-year national study of the impacts of exposure to environmental chemicals, heavy metals and tobacco smoke on pregnant women, fetuses and infants. This study is part of the Government of Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan.

Canadian Environment Network (CEN) – Chemical Management Plan Capacity Building Project
Working with Environmental Defence (ED) to inform the public about the federal government’s Chemical Management Plan and to increase public involvement in the Plan. Regular updates and information on the website.