by Marena Gibson
Environmental health is a field of science that studies how a person’s surrounding environment influences their health. So when someone needs to see an environmental health professional, and/or is suffering from an environment-related ailment, it means that their environment is negatively affecting their health. With that being said, an environment could also have a positive effect on someone’s health as well.
However, it’s not an all-or-nothing idea. Environmental health is a field relative to human health, and exists on a spectrum. Consequently, the intensity of these environment-related health effects, whether they are good or bad, range from high to low and everything between.
In general, women are more likely than men to suffer from changes in the environment. There is no simple explanation for the phenomenon, but the dynamic, perpetual relationship between society and environment may be a vital piece to the puzzle.
Pregnancy is an aspect of health that is singular to women. Though the environment of a fetus can be thought of as their mother’s womb, this environment is controlled by the entire body, and, like any other part of a woman’s body, it can be affected by the environment. One of the most obvious aspects of our environment is the air we breathe, and the quality of it has a substantial effect on pregnancy as well.
Several decades of studies have shown a link between air pollution and reproductive health. Exposure to high levels of air pollution during pregnancy has been associated with:
In turn, premature, LBW, and SGA infants have a higher risk of mortality. The precise mechanism of air pollutants on fetal health are still unknown, though several logical hypotheses have been proposed and are undergoing study. For example, when pregnant female mice had prolonged exposure to air pollution, they had lower placental weights compared to healthy female mice, and their offspring had lower birth rates. It was concluded that placental weight was affected by air pollution. It was then proposed that the placenta may be a route for pollutants to the fetus, and pollutants were directly influencing birth weights; another possibility is that placental abnormalities lowered the amounts of nutrients and oxygen provided to the fetus, which may hinder fetal development.
But how does air become polluted in the first place, and where do these pollutants come from?
Air becomes polluted when harmful substances enter the atmosphere in the forms of gases, fumes, and particles. Due to the law of the conservation of energy and the law of conservation of matter, neither energy nor matter is created nor destroyed, regardless of form. It means that air, water, and soil, or the environment and its issues (like pollution) are inextricably connected.
Cars are an obvious example of a source of air pollutants, and pollutants in general. When they burn fossil fuels, they emit carbon monoxide, particulates, and more. Here’s a table of everyday pollutants that cause health issues when they enter the air, the specific problems they may create during pregnancy, and the sources of these pollutants.
Lead is a pollutant that causes issues in pregnancy, and can enter a woman’s body in a few different ways, both directly and indirectly related to air pollution. A serious source of lead exposure is linked to soil, especially through direct ingestion of contaminated soil or dust. Soil becomes contaminated when lead particles become suspended in the air; again, when cars burn fossil fuels, lead is one of the pollutants emitted through the exhaust. These particles eventually settle on soil, and become part of it.
In urban areas, where soil has lost its life or been covered by concrete, it is prone to erosion, and is turned to dust. Again, the ingestion of contaminated dust through breathing is extremely dangerous, but when lead settles on healthy soil, it still poses a problem. The particles may settle on growing food; this is one reason why it’s so important to wash fruits and vegetables before consumption. Another relation to food is that once the lead particles are in the soil, and growing plants absorb nutrients from the soil, they might take up the lead as well.
Once lead has made its way into a pregnant woman’s body, it can be transferred to the fetus, which can cause:
Women & Pesticides
DDT is a strong chemical pesticide that has the typical effects of a pollutant on pregnancy, like premature births and SGAs. Again, pregnancy is a women’s health issue, but DDT has been found to impact women in several different ways: it may cause infertility, and has been linked to breast cancer time and time again. It causes health problems in men as well, but women have been found to be disproportionately affected. One possibility that would explain this is that women are increasingly exposed to pesticides in developing countries because they are more likely to be responsible for agricultural duties; in these countries, women's poisoning and other pesticide-related injuries seem to be greatly underestimated.
DDT is illegal in many countries, due largely in part to an initiative of the UN Environment Program. In 2006, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared its support for the indoor use of DDT in certain African countries--mostly developing countries--where malaria remains a major health problem. They justified their position by reasoning that the benefits of the pesticide outweigh the health and environmental risks. This presents an increased health risk for women because as well as agricultural exposure, the risk of malaria calls for additional use. This is further compounded by water management, which women are more likely to be responsible for. Malaria can also contaminate water, which may make an increase of DDT usage necessary for women to protect themselves from the disease.
Water & Gender Roles
Traditional gender roles call for women to be the homemakers and men to be the breadwinners. In areas where households lack access to water or drainage, women are largely responsible for the management of water: Collecting, storing, disposal, etc. In addition, women are in contact with water more often due to washing utensils and/or clothes.
Without proper drainage or sanitation facilities, wastewater and toilet sewage often end up being dumped back into the original water source. As a result, waterborne diseases (malaria, for example) are common, and women are most often exposed to these pathogens.
Gathering drinking water is a burden placed mostly on women and girls. Remote areas and settlements that are far from water require women and girls to walk several miles. The statistics are mind-blowing:
Don’t believe me? You can check them out for yourself here, in this awesome collaborative report, “Water for Women”.
These women are walking several miles per day, while carrying several pounds of water. They load this weight onto their heads, or into a wheelbarrow that requires them to bend their backs and push with force, or just with their arms, if there are no other options. All the weight they must transport for long amounts of time damages the musculoskeletal structure; spinal, back, neck, and head pain are all common in women who collect and carry water.
In addition to adverse health effects, the amount of time that women have to spend on managing water takes away from other areas of their lives, like seeking education or paid employment. These two activities could lead to more independence, and an escape from the gender roles that society places on women, including tasks that increase the risk of environment-related illnesses.
What Does It Mean?
This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t be breathing air or drinking water; there are simple practices that can reduce the risk of these adverse health effects. For example, pregnant women can check air quality forecasts using the EPA’s Air Quality Index tool, and avoid areas with hazardous levels of pollution. If possible, women can learn safer water practices that will reduce their risk of disease. The best approach will include gender equality and inclusion: women and men have different approaches to sustainability management (as I discussed at the end of my last post), and consideration of women-specific health issues may likely be passed over if their voices can’t be heard.
The biggest threat to lions today is habitat loss caused both by climate change and encroachment from an exponentially increasing human population. This quickly becomes a problem for males, because habitat loss leads to a decrease in the number of prides available for them to join, and it also means that competition between males for control of these scarce prides will increase. At a 6:1 ratio, yet a fairly equal birth rate, males will suffer first. Takeovers will become more frequent, thus increasing cub mortality. Last to be affected are the adult females, due to their close-knit social groups.
While males may come and go, lioness membership never changes: Older lionesses die, female cubs are born, and they will remain within the pride during the entirety of their lives. Outside females are met with hostility, but within a pack of lionesses, there is a special bond. They nurse each other’s cubs indiscriminately, can work together to fight off new males trying to take over, and they even take proactive measures to lessen the chance of a takeover by pushing out their male cubs once they’re 2-3 years old. These traits mean that a pack of lionesses may potentially live for an extended period of time without a male because they can protect and provide for themselves; that is, until the last lioness dies out and the pride is lost due to lack of a male for impregnation. Still, lionesses can live for 15-18 years, and that’s an impressive amount of time to (theoretically) resist the environmental impacts that are hurting their male counterparts.
It’s only a delay, though. Decrease of genetic diversity, and therefore, an increase in inbreeding, would become devastating. The two most important factors to prevent inbreeding in lions are the total number of prides, and the rate of male dispersal (the percentage of young males that are pushed out of the pride). When habitat is lost, there are fewer prides, and less distance for a young male to travel; that means it’s more likely for male lions to return to and take over their original prides. Their DNA is very similar to the female members, and the inbreeding begins. The greater the number of individuals in a population, the more genetic diversity, but inbreeding causes higher rates of mortality. It becomes a vicious cycle, piling onto itself, and if climate change and human encroachment continue to destroy lion habitat, it would lead to a rapid decline in the lion population.
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US Environmental Protection Agency
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
US National Library of Medicine
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