CABWHP publishes issue guides with thorough analyses of health policy issues addressing mental, emotional and physical health. Our Issue Guides are distributed via mail to Policy Advisory Group members and to over 1,000 colleagues and organizational collaborators.
Toxic Chemicals and Black Women's Health
Black women are at a higher risk of death from many types of cancer, including breast cancer. Many studies show that although Black women are diagnosed with breast cancer less often than White women, many factors play a role in decreasing our chances of survival and enjoying a healthy life again after we are diagnosed. Research shows that our exposure to toxic chemicals (in our homes, beauty products, places of work, and the environment) can lead to serious health risks.1 With our day-to-day stresses and struggles, we might feel that these environmental issues are too big or out of our control to change. However, we must raise our awareness and speak out about these issues. Getting to know the dangers of the toxins around us and how we can limit our exposure can help us decrease our health risks. Working toward ending the use of dangerous chemicals, protecting workers from exposure, and cleaning up our communities can make a difference in our health, along with the health of our families and our entire community.
Research reveals that as Black women we should be particularly interested in being informed about toxic chemicals. Although African-Americans make up only an eighth of the population, we hold one-third of all housekeeping and blue-collar jobs and one-half of all sanitation and janitorial jobs.2 These types of jobs, as well as jobs in the cosmetology, trucking and bus industries, put workers at high risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals.3 Many common cleansers used in workplaces or to clean our own homes contain products that can cause health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the air inside a home or workplace where chemicals are used is 2 to 5 times as polluted as the air located just outside it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, and a U.S. Labor Department survey, between 2 million and 4.5 million U.S. workers are exposed in the workplace to persistent or bioaccumulating toxic chemicals that are not reported to the public because they fall into a reporting loophole. Many workers are exposed to lead and dioxin, highly toxic substances linked to cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive disorders.4
Many Black women and girls are put at risk by our beauty routines. Cosmetic and personal care products often contain synthetic chemicals, dyes, hormones, detergents and allergens.5 These products are not subject to FDA approval and may be put on the market and sold to the public without being regulated. Recent reports showed that one-third of the lipsticks tested were found to contain more than the 0.1 ppm limit for lead imposed on candy and sweets by the US Food and Drug Administration.6 Although the limit for candy was set to protect children from ingesting lead, it is possible that lipstick, which is put directly onto the lips, is also a source of directly ingested lead, which could be particularly harmful for pregnant women. However, the FDA has not set a limit for lead in lipstick.
Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a coalition of women's, public health, and environmental groups campaigning for the phasing out of toxins in cosmetics, has suggested that over half of 33 top brands of lipstick on sale in the US contain detectable levels of lead.7 The cosmetics industry continues to sell women products containing potentially harmful chemicals and carcinogens because the industry is poorly regulated and the chemicals are inadequately assessed.8 Europe and California have taken the lead in addressing these dangers through policy. Europe's Registration and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) Act gives the cosmetics industry until 2018 to register over 30,000 chemicals added to cosmetic products detailing their potential hazards. California's Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 requires companies to report to the state any ingredients that are known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects.9
Hair and beauty products specifically marketed to the African American community, including lotions, creams, relaxers, conditioners, oils, and hair growth and strengthening products, may contain hormones (or agents that mimic hormones) that can contribute to higher breast cancer risk and premature sexual development in children who are exposed to the products.10 Many of these products are still on the market, even after the research showed a linkage to health hazards. In fact, many of us are exposed to synthetic hormones. They can be harmful to our health because they act as "hormone disrupters" and mimic synthetic estrogens, which can negatively impact the functioning of our entire endocrine system.11 However, due to the fact that regulation and testing by the FDA is not mandatory, it is not known whether companies are still using these ingredients in their products.12
Communities of color are at the highest risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals based simply on where we live. A recent study on environmental pollution, toxic waste and race showed that race was the most significant variable associated with where a toxic waste site was located.13 This study showed that African-Americans have an extremely high risk of continued exposure to these waste sites. Three out of every five African-Americans and Latinos live in a community with one or more toxic waste sites. Over 15 million African Americans, over 8 million Latinos and about 50 percent of Asian and Native Americans live in communities with one or more abandoned or uncontrolled toxic waste sites.14
The environmental toxins that pollute our water and food supplies are on the rise. The use of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) pesticides in California rose 127% between 1991 and 1998. Even after factories are closed, their waste and run-off create health hazards for us and our children.15 African American children have the highest level of lead in their blood, with Latino children at a close second. Lead exposure is especially dangerous for children because it can interfere with cognitive development, including lowering intelligence and impairing learning and behavior.16
Although the many responsibilities we have as Black women keep us very busy, we must also be aware of how the environment impacts us, our families and our community as a whole. While we often think of environmental issues as beyond our control, we can take proactive steps to protect our health starting today. The Center for Minority Health's Cancer Institute and Breast Cancer Action suggest that we start with getting to know the facts about what is in the products we use and what might be safer, non-toxic alternatives.17 (Please see the list of educational sites after the article.) We can limit our exposure to known and suspected toxins right now. We can become actively involved in the decision-making processes that shape policy around regulation and testing of chemicals. For example, we can find out how decisions are made about where a diesel bus garage or company that makes pesticides will be located. We can use our votes and voices to let our leaders know that we care about environmental toxins and how they impact Black women's health.
There are decisions that we can make everyday to make our homes, workplaces and communities safer. Educating yourself can help you make the best decisions about what you eat, drink, and what products you will use on your hair, body, or in your home.18 Using precaution, education and advocacy, we can build a healthier life for us all.
Advocate Training Program 2008:
Empowering Black Women
to be Tomorrow's Health Activists
Application Deadline: Round 2 - Jan. 15, 2008
CABWHP will soon begin training a new group of Los Angeles health advocates through our innovative Advocate Training Program (ATP). The 2008 ATP will have a special cohort for young women ages 18-24. However, applications from sisters of all ages are welcome. The ATP is designed to train women from the grassroots community to become effective health policy activists and advocates. Since 2002, the Advocate Training Program has produced sixty-five women's health advocates trained in Black women's health issues, media advocacy, community organizing, strategy development and policy advocacy. In 2006, we trained our inaugural Northern California class of advocates in the East Bay. The 2008 ATP will empower a new set of health advocates to enrich our advocacy, activism and dialogue with policy makers. Applications are available now! Space is limited so submit your application as early as possible!
Call 310-412-1828 for more information
1 Breast Cancer Action, www.bcaction.org
2 University of Pittsburgh, Cancer Institute, Center for Environmental Oncology, www.environmentaloncology.org
3 The Center of Minority Health, University of Pittsburgh, Cancer Institute, www.environmentaloncology.org
4 The Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov, and U.S. Labor Department, www.net.org/health/neighborhood
5 Breast Cancer Action, www.bcaction.org
6 Women's Health and Gynecology News, Oct. 2007, www.MedicalNewsToday.com
7 Women's Health and Gynecology News, Oct. 2007, www.MedicalNewsToday.com
8 "Environmental Chemicals and Breast Cancer", Silent Spring Institute Study, www.silentspring.org
9 "Environmental Chemicals and Breast Cancer", Silent Spring Institute Study, www.silentspring.org
10 University of Pittsburgh, Cancer Institute, Center for Environmental Oncology, www.environmentaloncology.org
11 Women's Health Journal, Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, by Ellen Reynolds, DES Action Canada
12 University of Pittsburgh, Cancer Institute, Center for Environmental Oncology, www.environmentaloncology.org
13 "Facts You Should Know", www.net.org/health/neighborhood and Ms. Magazine, Summer issue, 2007
14 "Facts You Should Know", www.net.org/health/neighborhood and Ms. Magazine, Summer issue, 2007
15 Kegley, S. "Hooked on Poisons: Pesticide use in California", Californians for Pesticide Reform, 1999
16 "Facts You Should Know", www.net.org/health/neighborhood and Ms. Magazine, Summer issue, 2007
17 Breast Cancer Action, www.bcaction.org
18 University of Pittsburgh, Cancer Institute, Center for Environmental Oncology, www.environmentaloncology.org