Black Women and Environmental Justice
Everyone should have the right to live in a healthy and safe environment. Unfortunately, we all encounter dangerous chemicals daily, and low-income communities of color disproportionately face exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals in the environment as well as in their homes. People who live in these communities are also more likely to be exposed to toxic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals that cause cancer and other health problems in the workplace.
Over the next few months, we plan to bring information on a specific category of toxins known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Many products that are marketed to Black women and girls often contain a lot of EDCs that can be harmful to their reproductive health.
The Endocrine System
The endocrine system is the network of hormones that are involved in every biological process in the body beginning in utero. A series of glands in our bodies produce and secrete hormones that create changes in the body. Hormones circulate through the bloodstream but only act on cells that have specific receptors that match up with specific hormones like a lock and a key. When a hormone fits into its receptor, changes occur on the cellular level. This is how our bodies regulate so many things including, but not limited to, hunger, growth, puberty, and pregnancy. Unfortunately, we are exposed daily to chemicals that can create chaos in the endocrine system.
What are endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs)?
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, also known as endocrine disruptors or hormonally-active agents, are compounds that interfere with the proper functioning of the endocrine system. They can block hormone receptors or mimic the structure of certain hormones in the body, fitting themselves into receptors meant for the body’s hormones. For women, this can be the case with chemicals that are recognized by the body as estrogen. Because of the way that the body’s endocrine system functions, small changes in the levels of hormones can result in significant biological changes. This means that even very small doses of endocrine disruptors can have major detrimental effects on the body. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be found in everyday consumer products such as food packaging, furniture, outerwear, cosmetics, toys, and more.
What Are Some Common Classes of EDCs?
- Phthalates – Phthalates make plastics softer and more flexible.
- Parabens – Parabens act as preservatives.
- Bisphenols – Bisphenols, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), make plastics tougher and clearer.
- PFAS – PFAS help increase resistance to stains, water, oil, and grease.
- Triclosan – This chemical is designed to kill dangerous microorganisms.
- Flame Retardants – These increase fire resistance.
- Dioxins – These are manufacturing byproducts.
RSP, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), developed and released this new clean beauty animation that explains and explores Black women’s exposure to toxic ingredients in the personal care products that are marketed to them.
According to the CDC, phthalates are a group of chemicals known as plasticizers that are used to make plastics more flexible and durable. Unfortunately, phthalates are not securely attached to the plastic polymer system, and this means they can easily detach and leach into the environment when exposed to heat or UV rays. Phthalates can even leach into foods when used in food packaging like plastic food containers, fast-food boxes, and sandwich bags.
Phthalates are broken down by the body quickly after entering the body. Studies have shown higher levels of phthalates in the urine of women than in men. Scientists attribute this to women's greater use of personal care products and cosmetics containing phthalates that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, in the case of scented products.
For more information, read this article about a study done by one of our partners, Robin Dodson, from Silent Spring Institute about hair products specifically marketed toward Black women: Hair products for Black women contain mix of hazardous ingredients
FAQ about phthalates:
You can be exposed to phthalates in many ways. Breathing the air or drinking the groundwater near facilities that produce or use phthalates can be harmful. Fatty foods, especially dairy products, seafood, and even plant-based oils can be sources of phthalates because these chemicals are stored in fat cells. A developing fetus can be exposed in utero and mothers can pass phthalates to their babies through breastfeeding. These chemicals can also be found in a variety of consumer products including, but not limited to:
- Children’s toys
- Medical tubing
- Vinyl flooring
- Nail polishes
- Hair sprays
Phthalates are extremely common. One specific phthalate, known by the abbreviation DEHP, can be found in detectable levels in almost every person living in the United States. Annually, two million tons of DEHP are produced in industries worldwide.
Although phthalate exposure has not been extensively studied in humans, laboratory studies show adverse health effects in animals. These studies have demonstrated that phthalates are endocrine-disrupting and androgen-blocking chemicals. This means that they can both mimic female reproductive hormones and suppress the activity of male reproductive hormones.
Scientist have seen the following effects in animal studies:
- Disruption of the male reproductive system
- Reproductive and genital defects in males
- Low testosterone levels in males
- Development of early puberty
- Low sperm count
- Insulin resistance
According to the CDC, the levels of phthalates in personal care products are much lower than the amount that animals in the laboratory are exposed to. However, scientists have not conducted enough studies on low-level chronic exposure to phthalates to conclude that using products containing these chemicals is safe for humans.
Legislative Action on Phthalates
According to Clean Water Action, another partner of RSP, flame retardants are a group of chemicals, including phthalates, found in many household products, including electronics, furniture, car seats, strollers, pillows, and toys. Originally, these substances were added to furniture and children’s products due to California’s 1975 flammability standard TB-117. This law required that products containing polyurethane foam be able to resist an open flame for 12 seconds. Chemical manufacturing companies convinced California regulators that these chemicals were necessary in a large variety of other products as well, and because California has such a large consumer market, these became the standards across the whole country. However, research has shown that chemical flame retardants do not actually slow the spread of fire in real-life situations. Research has also shown that these chemicals are dangerous to human health. Flame retardant chemicals are associated with learning and developmental disabilities in children, neurological damage, cancer, and other serious health issues.
On January 1st, 2021, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed the Children and Firefighters Protection Act into law. Though the law affects countless others, it is focused on firefighters because the particularly toxic smoke that comes from these burning chemicals in a house fire are linked to various cancers disproportionately affecting firefighters. This act bans 11 toxic flame-retardant chemicals from children’s products, mattresses, residential furniture, carpeting, and window coverings. Additionally, it gives the Department of Environmental Protection the authority to ban additional flame retardants that are hazardous to human health and the environment.