Environmental Justice and Reproductive Health

One focal point of Resilient Sisterhood Project’s mission is to bring to light the historical and present day effects of environmental racism in our communities. Environmental racism often comes in the form of disproportionate exposure to toxic chemicals, including but not limited to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), proximity to industrial waste sites, and polluted water and air. Another form of environmental racism can be a lack of access to green and recreational outdoor spaces. These forms of structural discrimination can negatively impact reproductive and overall health outcomes.

What is Environmental Racism?

According to Melissa J. Perry, Sc.D., MHS, environmental racism is a term coined to describe the disproportionate burden of industrialization and environmental contaminants that Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other non-white populations bear in the US. The term arose from a case in the early 1980s regarding hazardous waste sites in Warren County, North Carolina. An archived article in the New York Times reports that protests began in this predominantly Black community against dumping polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-laced soil in the county’s neighborhoods. Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr., a reverend, environmentalist, and chemist, led a research project in 1987 titled “Toxic Wastes and Race.” In his research, Dr. Chavis found that race was the most significant factor contributing to a neighborhood’s proximity to landfills and toxic waste sites. The report found that Black and Hispanic populations were repeatedly overrepresented in areas with large numbers of uncontrolled toxic waste sites. Another finding indicated that cities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had higher than average Black and Hispanic residents. 

After these findings were published, this disparity between the burdens of toxic wastes, landfills, and environmental contaminants became widely known as environmental racism. Subsequently, the movements to combat this structural discrimination became known as environmental justice movements. In her article “Toxic Cities: Neoliberalism and Environmental Racism in Flint and Detroit Michigan,” Professor Terressa Benz states that environmental justice political and research initiatives targeted US government’s policies that designate Black and Brown neighborhoods as “sacrifice zones.” These zones were defined by Sarah Mittlefehldt, PhD, as areas in which the US government often allows environmental destruction, displacement of residents, and hazardous waste deposits. Dr. Mittlefehldt emphasizes that these actions by the US government prioritize profits over residents’ lives and contribute to a systematic devaluation of minority communities. Since environmental justice movements were first incited in the1980s, several forms of legislation have passed, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. All of these sought to purposely decrease human exposure to contaminants. Even so, environmental injustices still persist today in communities of color. 

Toxic Waste Sites and Reproductive Health

One way that environmental racism contributes to the exposure to toxic chemicals is through industrial waste. The devaluation of minority neighborhoods caused by environmental racism leads to corporations and the US government to further exploit these now degraded areas for more industrialization and financial gain. A literature review by Melissa J. Perry, Sc.D., MHS, found that institutional discrimination leads to increased risk of poor health outcomes due to repeated exposure to toxins from industrial plants. Living near toxic waste sites can cause residents to ingest, inhale, and absorb environmental contaminants that can potentially lead to reproductive health issues, chronic diseases, cancers, and mental and behavioral disorders. Researchers have found that environmental contaminants are linked to increased health risks, such as: 

  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes 
  • Cardiovascular diseases 
  • High blood pressure and diabetes during and after pregnancy 
  • Low birth weight 
  • Decreased fertility 

For many people living near industrial waste sites, it can be difficult to move because their properties have been devalued and it may be hard to attract buyers in those communities.

Present-day Examples of Environmental Racism

Environmental Racism and Reproductive Health

Due to the effects of toxic chemicals on the reproductive system, environmental racism and reproductive health are inherently linked. This is because the numerous toxic chemicals Black women are more frequently exposed to can cause a higher risk of a wide range of reproductive health diseases and conditions as well as poor maternal outcomes. Underserved populations can also experience poor reproductive and maternal health consequences due to a lack of access to healthy spaces that promote a connection to nature.

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)

Due to the effects of toxic chemicals on the reproductive system, environmental racism and reproductive health are inherently linked. This is because the numerous toxic chemicals Black women are more frequently exposed to can cause a higher risk of a wide range of reproductive health diseases and conditions as well as poor maternal outcomes. Underserved populations can also experience poor reproductive and maternal health consequences due to a lack of access to healthy spaces that promote a connection to nature.

People do not need to be targeted geographically with threats to their water, air, and soil to be affected by environmental racism. There are other ways in which this type of structural discrimination comes into play. These include, but are not limited to, exposure to a particular class of toxins called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which can be abundantly found in a variety of forms around our homes, personal care products, and workplaces.  

EDCs are defined as compounds that interfere with the proper functioning of the endocrine system by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. They are also known as endocrine disruptors or hormonally-active chemicals. They can block hormone receptors, mimic natural estrogen, and bind to estrogen receptors. 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. EDCs can be found in everyday consumer products such as food packaging, furniture, outerwear, cosmetics, toys, and more. Common classes of EDCs include:

  • 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 – Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or 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.

Literature reviews and studies by Daniel E. Buttke, PhD, and Jean D. Brender, RN, found that EDCs can negatively impact reproductive health. They also can increase risks for a broad range of reproductive diseases and conditions as well as poor maternal health outcomes, including, but not limited to:

  • Ovarian cancer 
  • Breast cancer 
  • Hypertension during pregnancy (Preeclampsia) 
  • Gestational diabetes 
  • Stillbirth 
  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Decreased fertility 
  • Endometriosis 
  • Fibroids
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

A review conducted by Tamara James Todd, PhD, shows that Black and Hispanic young women are exposed to EDCs at a significantly higher rate than white women in the US. Black and Hispanic women also endure higher rates of most reproductive diseases and conditions, including gynecological cancers. 

Because of their estrogenic effects, EDCs can also contribute to higher rates of precocious and early onset puberty. By mimicking estrogen, EDCs can cause the body to believe puberty-related hormones are being released. This can then trigger an early onset of puberty. Separate studies by Tamara James Todd, PhD, and Daniel Ruiz, PhD, show that early puberty increases the risk for breast and ovarian cancers, obesity, depression, and psychosocial disorders. To learn more about precocious and early onset of puberty, click here

A study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black women often have higher bodily concentrations of some phthalates and parabens compared to white women. The higher than average exposure to EDCs faced by Black women in the US may be in part explained by the high levels of these chemicals in personal care products, particularly hair-care products, that are marketed to Black women and girls. In a joint study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute and RSP, researchers surveyed Black women to learn what hair products they most commonly used. The chemical composition of these frequently-used products were tested and the results indicated that nearly every product contained at least four EDCs with a total of 45 EDCs detected across all the products. The results also indicated that parabens, phthalates, and other classes of EDCs were often found in root stimulators, hair lotions, and hair relaxers. While many other hair care products contain EDCs, the levels found in products used by Black women were higher than other hair-care products. The disparities in EDC exposures from beauty products are one of the ways environmental racism persists today.

Video by the Hormone Health Network: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)

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.

Environmental Racism and Maternal Health

The reproductive health consequences of environmental racism extend to maternal health as well. According to Daniel Ruiz, PhD, environmental injustice is connected to an increased risk of pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, particularly in people of color who are pregnant, birthing, and in the postpartum stages. In the Journal of Women’s Health, Abee Boyles, PhD, notes that pregnant people are already more susceptible to these illnesses due to the bodily stresses of carrying a pregnancy to term. Childbearing populations experiencing high levels of environmental contaminant exposure are especially affected by the pulmonary and cardiac-related illnesses these pollutants can cause. A study led by Gaurav Ghosh, PhD, found that Black women are already experiencing significantly higher rates of pulmonary embolisms, fibroids, preeclampsia, and coronary artery disease during pregnancy. These conditions are all exacerbated by environmental toxins. 

Recreational Outdoor Spaces and Reproductive Health

Blue and green spaces are important community gathering sites, areas for outdoor exercise, and places that can promote overall well-being. However, racism, housing policies such as redlining, and overall neglect of Black communities have all contributed to a lack of accessible blue and green spaces. Such systemic racism can affect reproductive and maternal health outcomes. Environmental social scientists such as Laura Senier, PhD, and Magdalena van den Berg, MS, PhD, have found that racism can significantly decrease access to blue and green spaces in minority neighborhoods. They defined blue spaces as places surrounding lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water, and green spaces are areas within nature such as forests, parks, fields, and other places with greenery. Overall research has found that a lack of access to green and blue spaces is detrimental to mental health, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other behavioral disorders amongst children and adolescents. 

The insufficient access to these spaces can also play a critical role in maternal and infant health during the pregnancy and postpartum periods. Studies including those led by Mary Coussons-Read, PhD, and Yi Sun, PhD, show that when blue and green spaces are unavailable, pregnant people have fewer spaces to relieve stress through exercise and being outdoors. Chronic stress can impact pregnant people as it can lead to an increased risk of a wide range of health effects. In addition, amongst mothers who had recently given birth, blue and green spaces were found to improve postpartum depression and the mental well-being of new parents. 

Below is the list of some of the negative health impacts that can occur due to limited access to blue and green spaces: 


  • Immune dysregulation 
  • Hypertension 
  • Obesity 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Generalized body aches
  • Postpartum depression 


  • Worsened memory capacity 
  • Increased stress hormones 
  • Immune system malfunction later in life