Black Women and Environmental Justice

We at RSP believe that everyone has the right to live in a healthy and safe environment. Unfortunately, low-income communities of color disproportionately face exposures to pollution and to toxic chemicals in the environment. Additionally, people who live in these communities are more likely to be exposed to toxic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals that cause cancer and other health problems in the workplace. They are also less likely to have access to institutions that protect them from harmful exposures.

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 signaling in your body with glands that produce and secrete the hormones, and cells that have receptors to recognize the hormones.

Hormones circulate throughout your body through the bloodstream but only act on cells that have specific receptors that match up with the correct hormones. These receptors are unique to a specific hormone and when the hormone binds to its receptor, changes occur in the cell. These changes result in alterations to the levels or composition of proteins that the cells produce. This is how many biological processes are regulated in our bodies.

What are endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs)?

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, endocrine disrupting compounds, also known as endocrine disruptors or hormonally active agents, are chemicals that interfere with the proper functioning of the endocrine system.

Often, they do this because they mimic the structure of certain hormones in the body. For women, this can be the case with chemicals that physically look like and 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 result in significant developmental or biological effects. This means that even very small doses of endocrine disruptors can have major detrimental effects on the body.

What chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be found in everyday consumer products such as food packaging, toys, furniture, outerwear, cosmetics, and more. Common EDCs include Bisphenol A (BPA), PFAS, phthalates, flame retardants, and dioxin.

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

This Month’s Featured EDC: Phthalates

According to the CDC, phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used in plastics to make them more flexible and prevent breakage. They are also known as plasticizers. When phthalates are used for this purpose, they are not securely attached to the plastic polymer system. They can easily detach and leach into the environment when exposed to heat or UV rays.

Phthalates are broken down into metabolites by the body quickly after entering the body. Studies have shown that more phthalate metabolites are found in the urine of women than in men. Scientists attribute this to women's greater use of personal care products and cosmetics that contain phthalates, absorbed through the skin or inhalation.

For more information, please read this eye-opening article about a study done by one of our partners, Robin Dodson, from Silent Spring Institute about the hair products specifically marketed toward Black women.
Hair products for Black women contain mix of hazardous ingredients

FAQ about phthalates:

How are we exposed to phthalates?

Phthalates are used in many different types of consumer products including:

  • Vinyl flooring
  • Adhesives
  • Detergents
  • Personal care products, such as Soaps, Shampoos, Hair sprays, Nail polishes, Medical tubing, & Children’s toys
  • Fatty foods, especially dairy products, seafood, and oils.
  • They can also be passed from a mother’s body to an infant through breastfeeding and have been shown to cross the placenta.
  • People who live near facilities that produce or use phthalates can be exposed if they are released into the air or into groundwater.
How common are phthalates?

Phthalates are extremely common. One specific phthalate, known by the abbreviation DEHP, can be found in detectable levels in almost every single person living in the United States. Annually, two million tons of DEHP is produced in industries worldwide.

Why are phthalates dangerous?

Although phthalate exposure has not been extensively studied in humans, adverse health effects have been seen in laboratory studies with animals. These studies have shown that they are endocrine-disrupting and androgen blocking chemicals. This means that they can both mimic female reproductive hormones and suppress the activity of male sex hormones, according to Zero Breast Cancer.

In the animal studies, the following effects have been seen:
-Development of early puberty
-Disruption of the male reproductive system
-Abnormal endocrine functioning
-Reproductive and genital defects in males
-Low testosterone levels in males
-Low sperm count
-Insulin resistance

According to the CDC, the levels of phthalates in personal care products is much lower than the amount that animals in the laboratory are exposed to. However, there have not been enough studies conducted on low-level chronic exposure to phthalates in humans for conclusive evidence that regularly using products containing these chemicals is safe for our bodies.

Legislative Action: Children and Firefighters Protection Act

According to Clean Water Action, a partner of RSP, flame retardants are a group of chemicals found in many household products, including furniture, electronics, 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 that contain 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 cancer, learning and developmental disabilities in children, and many more health issues.

On January 1st, 2021 Governor Charlie Baker signed the Children and Firefighters Protection Act into law. Elizabeth Saunders, the Massachusetts Director for Clean Water Action, says “The passage of this bill will contribute to the well being of our most vulnerable as well as all Massachusetts residents.” 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.