Feminism, Environmental Justice, Toxic Dumps and Pesticides

Author(s): Jill Gay
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #7, Fall 1999
Topics:

What does feminism have to do with environmental justice? Environmental justice, as noted by the Institute of Medicine, finds that "the broad array of environmental burdens and hazards are being borne disproportionately by lower-income communities and by racial and ethnic minorities. Efforts to address this concern have been given the label of environmental justice…Despite the inadequacy of the information to date, it seems clear that inequities related to environmental and occupational hazards do exist." (IOM, 1999). Traditionally, environmental groups, such as Sierra Club, have stressed population control to reduce environmental degradation, especially in the countries of the South (Asia, Africa, Latin America). These same environmental groups have not given much thought for the health and well-being of the women they want to influence to have fewer children. But now we know that: "Population growth is now agreed to be only one of the multiple and complex factors that have led to global environmental degradation" (Germain, 1995). In fact, it is the consumption of the North, the industrialized countries-US, Europe, Japan-that consume the most resources and most degrade the environment.

The United States signed the Program of Action of the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994. The United States government has often referred to the goals of Cairo in US foreign policy or US Agency for International Development projects. But the agreements at Cairo have great potential for holding the US government accountable for our actions here in the US. Most significant in the Cairo Program of Action was a seismic shift away from population control to women's empowerment and reproductive health. ICPD established that goals should not center on demographic targets but rather on providing universal access to reproductive health services. In March 1995, the UN held the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen to address mounting world poverty. And in Sept. 1995, the UN sponsored the Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing.

The documents from Cairo and Beijing recognize that:

  • Women carry a disproportionate share of the problems of environmental degradation

  • Health is a right
  • Gender bias compromises women's health

The documents call for:

  • providing basic needs for all, including food security and safe drinking water

  • adopting economic policies which include social development goals, environmental preservation, and provisions that polluters shall bear the costs of cleaning up pollution

  • land reform

  • reducing environmental hazards that pose a growing threat to health, especially in poor communities and include reporting on women's health risks related to the environment

  • women's access to appropriate, affordable and quality health care throughout the life cycle

  • universal health care

  • empowering women and men to "attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health by promoting equitable gender relations" (United Nations, 1995)

  • ensuring that "women and men have access to information, education and services to achieve good sexual health and exercise their reproductive rights and responsibilities" (United Nations, 1995).

How do the commitments the US made in Cairo and Beijing measure up here at home? What is the US reality in two environmental justice communities: rural Alabama, where the largest toxic dump in the US is located, and among migrant farmworker women on the US-Mexico border?

WMX facility in Sumter County, Emelle, Alabama

Sumter County has the nation's largest hazardous waste landfill. The siting of this hazardous waste landfill in a rural, low-income African-American community has been cited as a textbook case of "environmental racism" (Setterberg, 1993). Or in the words of community activist Wendell Paris, sending Superfund wastes to Emelle is "turning Sumter County into the pay toilet of America and local residents into hazardous waste junkies" (Bullard, 1994). The WMX facility at Emelle, Alabama in Sumter County consists of 2,400 acres, where some of the most hazardous chemicals are stored-PCBs, benzene, dioxin, etc. The facility has been operating since 1978, when George Wallace's son-in-law bought the land and the community was informed that a potato-chip factory was being built. The community soon learned that something more dangerous was being manufactured than potato chips. But in fact, scientists are remarkably ignorant as to what exactly these health risks are. When toxic chemicals are tested for safety, each chemical is tested separately. But this hazardous waste facility combines many hazardous chemicals in a kind of "toxic soup" (Askew, 1995)-and the rural low-income African-American population that surrounds this facility are the guinea pigs in this experiment.

Family Health Care of Alabama (FHCA), provides health services to the population of Sumter County. Almost half of the people served by FHCA live below the poverty level. The average per capita income is under $8,000 per year. The average educational level completed is grade 8. Of the 127,000 people who live in the area served by FHCA, over 61 percent are African-American; 70,500 are rural. Over 21 percent of this population have no vehicle and over 24 percent do not own a phone. The Director of FHCA, Dr. Sandral Hullett, has worked as the health provider in this community for over 15 years, and has been working to collaborate with community members and scientists in an effort to find some of the answers to the question: what are the health effects of living next to this facility? The intersection between women's health and environmental health in this context is a series of questions which the community-and scientists-have been unable to answer. Clearly, Alabama is a long way from Cairo and Beijing

Migrant women farmworkers and pesticide exposure

Most environmental health research has only recently begun to highlight gender issues (Institute of Medicine, 1998). As two prominent CDC scientists put it: "Most information on the health effects of exposure to hazardous substances comes from occupational studies of healthy males…" (Burg, 1997). Few studies of pesticide exposure have been done concerning women. Farm women are often not classified as farmers but as farmers' wives, excluding them from large studies of pesticide-induced cancer.

Women are also exposed to pesticides not simply through occupational exposure, but also through gender-prescribed roles. For example, women traditionally wash clothes. A woman may be exposed to pesticides through washing the clothes of her male part ner or husband who has been working in the fields. Or in Mexico, where fields and housing are located side by side, women may be subjected to pesticide aerial spray because their gender prescribed role requires them to be home.

As a consequence of the invisibility of the research on pesticide exposure among migrant farmworker women, the health effects have not been addressed. Because research has not highlighted the differential impact of pesticide exposure on women, appropriate interventions have not been designed. Women are also traditionally disadvantaged both in access and control of resources in order to protect their health and the health of their children. Appropriate health services to meet the needs of migrant farmworker women suffering from pesticide exposure are largely lacking. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that farmworkers experience approximately 300,000 acute illnesses and injuries each year related to pesticides. "People of color and low-income groups are disproportionally exposed to and affected by pesticides" (Moses, 1993).

There are ten pesticides which are banned or restricted in the US but authorized for use in Mexico (Barry, 1994). Over 6 million pounds of pesticides which were banned, suspended or discontinued for use were exported to Mexico from the US. In 1994, over 4 million pounds of endocrine disrupting pesticides were shipped to Mexico (FASE, 1996). The pesticide DDT, which was banned in the US in 1972, is a public health problem in Mexico. Mexico uses more DDT than any other Latin American country.

World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment policies have been influential in promoting pesticide sales and in promoting agriculture for export, which is more likely to use pesticides (Dinham, 1993). NAFTA also encourages the expansion of agricultural exports which are "characterized by heavy use of pesticides" (Thrupp, 1994).

Migrant farmworker labor is increasingly a woman's occupation. Estimates for the US suggest that approximately one-fourth of the migrant farmworkers are women (Farmworker Justice Fund, 1994). Increasing numbers of Mexican women are joining the migrant stream to the US (Dwyer, 1994; Ortiz, 1998).

Pesticide exposure has been associated with statistically significant increased risk for malignant lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, liver cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, and brain cancer (Zahm, 1998, Heineman 1995, Moses, 1993). Occupational exposure to pesticides is associated with Parkinson's disease for both men and women (Gorell, 1998).

But some pesticides have differential reproductive health impacts for women only. Pesticide exposure can be a risk for sterility, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, and birth defects in humans (Moses, 1993). DDT may play a role in increases in the frequencies of preterm births, congenital malformations, and decreases in duration of lactation (Lopez, 1996). Occupational exposure to herbicides has been linked to ovarian cancer (Zahm, 1998). Some pesticides have differential reproductive health impacts for men only. Pesticide exposure has been associated with testicular and prostate cancer for men (Moses, 1993). DDE & DDT may lead to undescended testicles and lowered sperm counts (Steingraber, 1997). The pesticide DBCP is correlated for men with melanoma and penile cancer (Wesseling 1996).

Farm workers earn an average of $5,000-$10,000 per household per year (Hooks, 1997). Chili pickers get paid by "piece" rate. A worker must pick about 40 pounds of product every single hour to make at least the minimum wage (Marentes, 1998). When women work as migrant farmworkers, they are paid less than men (Moses, 1993).

Migrant health clinics are able to serve less than twenty percent of the migrant farmworkers in the US (Dever, 1991). Few physicians are trained to recognize and treat pesticide exposure.

Regulations in the US do not adequately protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. In the US, while other occupations have been regulated with respect to exposure to hazardous chemicals, this has not been the case for farmworkers. In the US, pesticides are regulated by twin laws: The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FFDCA sets legal limits for pesticide residues allowed in foodstuffs. Therefore, assessments of acceptable levels of exposure to pesticides are based on the acceptable daily intake of consumption of food sprayed with pesticides, rather than being based on any occupational exposure (Bullard, 1993). FIFRA requires companies manufacturing pesticides to test their products for toxicity and submit their results to the federal government. Until old, untested pesticides are registered, these untested pesticides can be sold and used. "As one critic has noted, it is as if the bureau of motor vehicles issued everyone a driver's license, but did not get around to giving us a road test until ten years later. According to the National Research Council, only 10 percent of pesticides in common use have been adequately assessed for hazards" (Steingraber, 1997). The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is beginning to test chemicals for effects on the endocrine system and for transgenerational effects (Olden, 1998). Standards, where they exist, are designed for healthy, well-nourished men in the US working an eight hour day (IOM, 1998).

Groups working with farmwork with respect to exposure to hazardous chemicals, this has not been the case for farmworkers. In the US, pesticides are regulated by twin laws: The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FFDCA sets legal limits for pesticide residues allowed in foodstuffs. Therefore, assessments of acceptable levels of exposure to pesticides are based on the acceptable daily intake of consumption of food sprayed with pesticides, rather than being based on any occupational exposure (Bullard, 1993). FIFRA requires companies manufacturing pesticides to test their products for toxicity and submit their results to the federal government. Until old, untested pesticides are registered, these untested pesticides can be sold and used. "As one critic has noted, it is as if the bureau of motor vehicles issued everyone a driver's license, but did not get around to giving us a road test until ten years later. According to the National Research Council, only 10 percent of pesticides in common use have been adequately assessed for hazards" (Steingraber, 1997). The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is beginning to test chemicals for effects on the endocrine system and for transgenerational effects (Olden, 1998). Standards, where they exist, are designed for healthy, well-nourished men in the US working an eight hour day (IOM, 1998).