At RSP, we recognize the lack of general awareness and knowledge regarding the toxic chemicals found in many commonly used household and personal care products. A great majority of personal care products used primarily by black women can lead to adverse health outcomes, specifically in the area of reproductive health. In response to this concern, RSP has been a part of the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow (AHT), a coalition of citizens, scientists, health professionals, workers, and educators seeking preventive action on toxic hazards.
Founded in 2004 and coordinated by Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund Massachusetts, AHT is Safer State affiliate in Massachusetts: a network of diverse environmental health coalitions and organizations in states around the country that share a bold and urgent vision to prevent harm to people and the environment caused by dangerous chemicals. AHT advocates for a precautionary approach, with chemicals tested before they are put in consumer products and released to the environment and, fight for the elimination of toxic hazards known to harm health and the environment. Its goal is to protect Massachusetts people from toxic chemicals.
Safer States, as the umbrella organization, creates innovative solutions that promote safer alternatives and works directly with state-based advocacy organizations, providing support and strategic guidance to advocates as well as the space for national collaboration and coordination. Below is the post which was originally published by Safer States to highlight RSP’s work as a member of the Alliance for Healthy Tomorrow.
The Resilient Sisterhood Project (RSP), founded in June 2012, is an emerging nonprofit based in Boston, Massachusetts. RSP’s mission is to inform and empower women, including young adults (ages15-21) of African descent affected by diseases of the reproductive system. Regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status, women of African descent are disproportionately affected by common but rarely discussed diseases of the reproductive system within the black community. These diseases include, but are not limited to uterine fibroids, endometriosis, infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), breast, cervical, uterine, and ovarian cancers. RSP works in partnership with—rather than on behalf of black women and young adults in our communities as we mobilize to address deeply rooted racial discrimination and internalized racism, health and medical inequities, oppressive cultural/gender norms, environmental/food injustice, and other social determinants of health that perpetuate the silence and inaction surrounding these diseases.
To carry out our mission, we make a conscious decision to bring a unique social and cultural approach in the discourse of these diseases. Our programs and services represent venues of support for activism, empowerment, and organizing. We provide both structured and informal interactions to provide culturally sensitive and safe spaces where women of African descent can speak freely and inquire about reproductive health conditions about which they lack knowledge and may feel shame or anxiety. We serve black women of all socioeconomic backgrounds; however, we give preference to women and young adults from disenfranchised communities.
In light of RSP’s mission, we spend a great deal of time engaging the women we serve in conversations that help them to make the connection between their reproductive health, environmental justice, and harmful environmental chemicals. These lively interactions are often framed in context to recall past and current historic legacy pollutants in the black communities—and the awareness that black and brown communities tend to shoulder the burden of environmental injustice. Often cited during those talks are examples of Flint Michigan and its water crisis on the African American communities and the prevalence of higher rates of asthma in the black population which can be attributed to poor outdoors and indoor air pollution. The framing has also extended itself to reflections behind the politics of chemicals toxins, class, genders, and race. During a gathering with a small group of immigrant women from the Caribbean, the conversation focused on occupational exposure as some of them remarked they overwhelmingly represent the majority of domestic and hospitality workers in this country. They went on to talk about their long hours of work in places like hospitals, hotels, nursing homes—and thereby, their constant exposure to industrial-strength cleaning and medical supply products. Some of the women spoke about friends and relatives who had to work on farms in places like Florida where the usage of herbicides and pesticides were quite common.
Information about toxic chemicals and reproductive health is not readily available to women of color, especially for those in low-income communities. Products like hair straighteners and relaxers are heavily marketed to black and ethnic women. Yet, many women of African descent are less likely to have information about the health risks from exposure to products that contain hormone disruptors, heavy metals, and other known carcinogens. Many of the chemicals found in common hair products for people of African descent are known as estrogen and endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs.
According to the CDC, disadvantaged and minority neighborhoods face a greater likelihood of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and experience a higher prevalence of diseases resulting from these exposures. For instance, black women are disproportionately affected by fibroids—70-80% of black women will have clinically recognized uterine fibroids and are diagnosed at much younger ages and have higher rates of hysterectomies, and more symptomatic tumors on average than white women. A recent study noted that over 80% of African American women are likely to develop fibroids during their lifetime. More women in the US have undergone hysterectomies because of complications with fibroids than for any other reason.
African American women and other women of lower socioeconomic status tend to have higher exposure levels to these chemicals than any other racial group. It has been reported that black women buy more cosmetics and personal care products than any other ethnic group in the United States. Despite being less than 7 percent of the national population, black women are responsible for an estimated 22 percent of the country’s personal care products on the market. This is problematic because consumer products overall and beauty products specifically marketed to black women contain more toxic ingredients than those manufactured for other ethnic groups, which means that black women experience higher exposure to these toxic chemicals. Increasing evidence link these exposures to the occurrence of reproductive disorders such as the earlier onset of puberty in girls and boys, and hormone-dependent such as breast and ovarian cancers.
Lately, and in our ongoing workshops, we have been talking about a recent study by Jessica Helm, a scientist fellow at the Silent Spring Institute. She is also the lead author of the study, published in April in Environmental Research. Essentially, her research highlights that many black women are exposed to various toxic chemicals through the hair products they use. Miss Helm mentioned that 8 in 10 of the products studied contained parabens and phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors—substances that disturb the body’s hormone balance. Regular exposure to phthalates can cause early puberty and preterm births. Chemicals in hair cosmetics can be absorbed by the body via the skin or inhalation. The researchers also detected nonylphenol, a compound associated with obesity and a higher risk of breast cancer in 30 percent of the hair treatments. “We found dozens of these chemicals in the products, with multiple chemicals in each product,” says Miss Helm, “Some contained as many as 30, and that is important because these chemicals can have additive effects in combination,” she adds. RSP has had a strong partnership with Silent Spring Institute since our inception in 2012. This type of collaboration is significant because it allows us to inform and disseminate critical information relevant to our engagement with the women and communities that we continue to serve.