In 1975, at the Mexico City First World Conference on Women, Vandana Shiva, the Indian scholar and environmental activist, introduced the issue of women’s relationship to the environment. At the time, concern was raised about the depletion of forestry resources and women’s role in agriculture and a connection was made between environmental development and its impact on women.
Over the past several decades, demand for resources and industrial processes have been responsible for increasing levels of pollution and the degradation of air, water, and land. In addition to unrestricted exploitation of natural resources, unsound agricultural practices have had devastating effects on the environment and on people’s health and quality of life. Women and children have been the most vulnerable segments to these effects.
Women, especially those who are pregnant and/or living in rural or marginal suburban areas in developing countries, are particularly susceptible to environmental threats. Until recently, women had few choices regarding their lifestyle and fewer opportunities to change unsatisfactory domestic or work conditions and improve their families’ and their own health.
Women are susceptible to health problems and hazards because of their roles as home-managers, economic providers, and their role in reproduction. The reproductive system of pregnant women is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Every step in the reproductive process can be altered by toxic substances in the environment. These toxic substances may increase the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, foetal growth retardation, and perinatal death.
The developing foetus is susceptible to environmental factors when the mother is exposed to toxic substances in the workplace. Furthermore, because foetal nutrition is entirely dependent on the mother, the factors that affect maternal nutrition and maternal health also affect the foetus. For example, nutritional deficiencies in the mothers (such as lack of vitamins or minerals) can increase the proportion of low-birth babies, who are at greater risk of dying during infancy.
The exposure of pregnant women to physical and chemical contaminants can affect intrauterine development. Although the placenta is an effective barrier against many substances, some toxic chemicals can pass through the placenta and enter the blood of the foetus, sometimes reaching higher concentrations than in the mother. Some of these substances can even affect the foetus but not the mother.
Foetal sensitivity to different substances varies with the gestational age. In the first two weeks after conception, the embryo can be fatally damaged by toxic substances such as benzene, lead, or methyl mercury. Exposure to toxic substances between the third and ninth week of pregnancy can lead to severe malformations of the foetal organs, which at this stage have begun to develop. At least 3% of babies are born with birth defects, 10% to 15% of which are caused by exposure to environmental factors, such as chemicals, radiation, viruses, and drugs.
The exposure of pregnant women to high doses of radiation can also have serious consequences for the foetus, particularly when the exposure occurs between the eighth and 15th week of pregnancy. During this period, the cerebral cortex is developing and it is particularly vulnerable to factors of this kind, which can cause severe mental underdevelopment.
Children are even more susceptible than adults to environmental contamination because they are in the process of development and their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms have not reached their full potential. As a result, toxic agents in food, air, and water have a more serious effect. Children absorb more pesticides and reach a higher concentration of some toxic agents than adults. Children also lack the experience and knowledge needed to recognise certain situations as potentially harmful.
The quality of the environment will determine to a great extent whether a child will survive its first year of life and how well he will develop. Exhibiting the importance of the quality of the environment during the child’s first months of life, it has been shown that in populations that live in a clean environment free of toxic environmental influences, only one in 100 children dies before its first birthday. However in poor communities, lacking basic health services and where the community is easily exposed to harmful environmental factors since many as one in every two children may die before the age of one.
Women in local organisations have first-hand knowledge of the effect of environmental degradation in their communities. Through their work in their communities and with the media, women can provide practical examples of environmental abuse and help raise awareness that can lead to more effective political action.
Cesar Chelala, MD, PhD, an international public health consultant, is the author of “Maternal Health” and “Environmental Impact on Child Health”, both publications of the Pan American Health Organisation.