Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Women in their environment

We are all exposed to chemicals which are in the air we breathe, the soil we harvest our food from, and the water we drink. Air pollution via chemicals can occur via industrial emissions, chemical accidents and other sources. Air serves as a long-range transporting vehicle for some pollutants, which makes chemical pollution a trans-boundary concern. Many of the toxins initially emitted to air are later deposited to water. Other chemicals are directly released to water or enter the water system via consumer products, agricultural products, leaking landfills, and industrial discharges. Contaminated soil results mostly from atmospheric deposition, waste dumping, spills from industrial and waste facilities, mining, contaminated water coming from e.g. fracking, and pesticides used in agriculture. Many common pollutants in soil and water are heavy metals and pesticides. In the air some contaminants are persistent organic pollutants, which are partly banned in the Stockholm Convention. 

There is only few valid statistical data available about the exposure specifically of women to contaminants in soil, air and water. More gender disaggregated data is urgently needed in this field. We can only assume that on a regular basis, without taking into account hot spots of contamination, women are equally exposed. Nevertheless, they are not equally affected and can develop different negative health effects to men.

However, some examples illustrate gender aspects regarding chemical contamination from their environment. The NGO Breast Cancer Fund (BCF) highlights that “air pollutants account for 35 of the 216 chemicals associated with increase in mammary gland tumours in animals.”79 As main sources of exposure from air pollution BCF lists primary and secondary tobacco smoking, diesel exhaust, and occupational exposure. As main water pollutants pesticides, dioxins and pharmaceuticals are mentioned. A WHO study finds that „differences in vulnerability interact with gender inequalities to affect women’s respiratory function. Swedish data show that women report ailments in the form of allergies and respiratory or skin hypersensitivity to a greater extent than men. In Bordeaux, the effects of air pollution were greater for women than for men among the elderly and, in Barcelona, older women were at greater risk of dying as a result of exposure to black smoke than were men.“ 80 Living near areas that are highly polluted by obsolete pesticides and POPs dumping, chemical accidents, industrial and military use, and mining, is a severe health threat for women in many areas of the world. International organisations assume that there are 500,000 tons of obsolete chemicals stockpiled worldwide.82 Countries with the highest stockpiles of obsolete pesticides are the Russian Federation, FYR Macedonia, Ukraine, and Mali.83 Most of the stockpiles are not safe, with substances stored in unsafe and sometimes open places. Packages and containers deteriorate over time. Often it is unknown what kind of substances are stockpiled. Toxins can leak to groundwater and to water systems and emit into the air. They can also contaminate livestock and crops nearby the vicinity. People living near stockpiles have a high risk of developing negative health effects of endocrine, nervous, immune, respiratory, and reproductive systems, which can lead to asthma, cancer, infertility, allergies and other diseases. Clean up of chemical hot spots is incredibly expensive. In many cases only safe storing is undertaken, instead of elimination. 

Some hot spots arise from industrial activities and mining. For example, in Albania the former chlor alkali and PVC plant in Vlora directly discharged its wastewater into Vlora bay and dumped its polluted sludge near the shore, where it remains today. The plant operated for 25 years and was closed in 1992. No precautionary measures have been taken in these years and since the shut down. The found mercury levels in a soil sample were 1000 times higher than typical EU thresholds. Vlora bay is an important fish area in Albania.84 Eating contaminated fish and other food or drinking contaminated water is even more dangerous for pregnant women, as the developing child can suffer later in life from neurological problems like attention deficits, IQ loss and in some cases even deafness and blindness. 

It is very difficult to retrieve gender disaggregated data regarding chemical hot spots. However, many studies show that there is a strong link between several diseases such as breast cancer and living near POPs and pesticides hot spots. Much effort is needed to map, store and finally clean up those contaminated sites. Clean up costs are so tremendous that many countries cannot afford it. This is one reason why many NGOs demand for an internalization of cost scheme on international level to implement the polluter pays principle. Furthermore research for cost effective and safe elimination of POPs stockpiles should be supported, as safe alternatives to incineration

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