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Are Chemicals Poisoning the World’s Female Workers?

Women are disproportionately exposed to deadly substances—and may be getting disproportionately sickened by them.

By , a multi-media freelance journalist.
A woman works at a phone factory in the Republic of Congo.
A woman works on a phone at a factory in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on July 20, 2015. FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP via Getty Images

Ana often gets nosebleeds after working at her job assembling cellphones at a factory in Vietnam. The single mother, who requested a pseudonym in fear of professional repercussions, has also fainted numerous times. “When I feel a little dizzy and nausea I still go to work,” she said. “I may lose a lot of bonus if I stay off work for a day.”

Mobile phones contain a variety of chemical substances, including plasticizers and flame retardants. And while it’s difficult to isolate the health impacts of exposure to these and other chemicals because they are so ubiquitous in our environment, studies have linked their use to developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems. A new report published in January found that these health effects are particularly worrisome for women, who are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in the workplace because of their prevalence in chemical-heavy industries, poorer working conditions relative to men, and even biological factors.

Generally, women have a higher proportion of adipose tissue compared to men and, as a result, they are more likely to store environmental pollutants. A woman’s reproductive cycle may also play a role. The new report, jointly produced by the International Pollutants Elimination Network and the Strategic Alliance for International Chemicals Management, notes that women “have different susceptibility to hazardous chemicals in connection with their reproductive cycles” and that they may be more vulnerable to health damage from toxic chemicals “at different life stages such as pregnancy, lactation, and menopause.”

Electronics and textiles are among the industries that most contribute to the problem, said Sara Brosche, one of the report’s authors. “These are also two sectors that have a predominantly female workforce,” she said.

Exposure to chemicals is common in other female-dominated industries, too. When Elva Aguilar went to the hospital with chest pain, shortness of breath, and headaches, doctors diagnosed her as having a nervous breakdown. “My breathing was not normal,” she said. “I had to breathe short breaths because, when I would breathe, there was intense pain in the rib cage.”

The 55-year-old, who moved to the United States from El Salvador, had been working as a cleaner for more than a year when she developed a skin allergy, dry eyes, back pain, and digestive issues. Desperate to explain the onset of her symptoms, she sought help at a local health fair, where a chiropractor asked her what cleaners she used. When she listed off the names of some common household products, he suggested another potential cause for her symptoms. “He told me that it could be poison,” Aguilar said. She switched to nontoxic products and said that, while her symptoms have improved, she still suffers from headaches and digestive problems.

“We can’t necessarily pin it to one thing,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit based in Montana that advocates for women’s rights in the workplace and has studied the impact of toxic chemicals on hair and nail salon workers, who are regularly exposed to chemicals in hair sprays and nail glue for acrylic nails. “A lot of the issue has to do with cumulative impacts, which can often get ignored,” she said. “There is very little research into, for example, ‘This group of women who have been exposed to this chemical from X product and they have this health outcome.’ That kind of research—which would be great to have—almost never gets done.”

There is no global framework to protect workers from chemical exposure, but some jurisdictions are better at implementing protections than others. The European Union, for example, has more stringent regulations than the United States and bans certain chemicals that are commonly used in products sold in America.

In January 2019, a bill was introduced in Connecticut to make cosmetics in the state “meet the chemical safety standards established by the European Union,” but it failed to pass. Both the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization have urged policymakers to prohibit the use of asbestos, and more than 60 countries have banned the mineral. But in the United States, it is commonly used in the construction industry (with the exception of New Jersey, which banned asbestos in 2018). Formaldehyde, a chemical listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a known carcinogen, is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU but is frequently used in nail polish and hair-straightening treatments in the U.S.

Hairstylist Emily Baedeker has worked in the industry for more than two decades. Around nine years ago, the Alameda, California, hair stylist began to get “crazy migraines” and suffer from fibroids, dermatitis, and thyroid issues. “The hair color … also caused my eyes and nose to burn,” she said. Later she saw an ad in a trade magazine that made her question whether her symptoms were related to her exposure to chemicals. “The picture was really intense,” she said. “It was a stylist wearing a gas mask and the headline was something like, ‘You shouldn’t have to risk your health to color your hair.’” Research from as far back as 2009 found hairdressers have a higher risk of cancer than the general population.

Both globally and in the United States, women of color are even more at risk from the potential health effects of chemical exposure, not only because they disproportionately work in chemical-heavy industries but also because they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution. Studies show that communities of color are more often situated next to highways and big polluting industries, such as oil refineries, meat processing plants, agricultural fields, and toxic waste dumps.

Brosche said that more research is needed to understand the health effects of exposure to toxic chemicals and that more pressure should be put on manufacturers to phase out their use. When products are found to have a health impact, she wants manufacturers to be held accountable, including being made to cover the costs of patients’ medical care.

Meanwhile, Baedeker said her experience opened her eyes to the potential dangers of working in the hair salon industry: “I had never once considered what these chemicals might be doing to my body.”

Lucy Sherriff is a multimedia journalist reporting on environment, social justice and communities across the world.
 Twitter: @sherifflucy