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Sex Bias In Our Environment

Written by Caroline Selle

This is the first installment of a new series on the intersection between feminism and environmentalism

In DC EcoWomen, we talk a lot about what it means to be a woman and an environmentalist and how to succeed in environment-oriented careers. We have fewer discussions about how environmental challenges affect women’s bodies and lives.

It’s a complicated topic, and one rife with linguistic landmines. When we speak of women, are we referencing gender or sex? In describing the most impacted locations, can we use the terms third and first world? Or is it better to describe things in terms of the global north and south? Wait. Is there really that much of a difference, given the impacts of extractive industries on women here in the United States?

This piece gets into some pretty wonky science, so before I start throwing around terms like “persistent organic pollutants,” I’d like to explain how environmental issues impact us here and now.

Today, we’re exposed to a lot. New technologies like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have been linked to water pollution. The tar sands are contaminating Canada’s groundwater. And, we’re seeing the effects of generations of subjection to toxic chemicals. Anecdotal evidence from “Cancer Alley” points to the effects of long term exposure to emissions from the petrochemical industry.

We still don’t know exactly what many of these toxins are doing, and we know even less about what they’re doing to women.

It goes to the roots of how scientific studies are conducted. Historically, scientists have used male lab animals and cell lines. The conclusions drawn from those studies have obscured differences in the way male and female bodies react to everything from pollutants to drugs.

In an article in Nature, the NIH’s director, Francis S. Collins, and the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, Janine A. Clayton, recognized that the bias was probably unintentional. “Lack of understanding about the potential magnitude of the effect of sex on the outcome being measured is likely to perpetuate this blind spot,” they wrote.

The NIH announced in the same article that it was taking steps to erase gender bias in biomedical studies. It’s a big step forward, but it doesn’t erase the historical impacts gender bias in scientific studies has had on female bodies.

Here are just a few:

  • According to the New York Times, females are more likely to experience severe side effects from new treatments. For example, females need to take less of the sleeping pill Ambien, because it’s metabolized differently in our bodies. Similarly, aspirin has different preventative effects on heart disease in males and females.

  • Females have a higher percentage of body fat than males and are therefore able to accumulate a higher percentage of fat-soluble toxins relative to their body weight. For example, dioxin, a group of chemically related compounds that “are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer,” is stored in fat. While dioxins can harm everyone, the WHO notes that, “The developing fetus is most sensitive to dioxin exposure.”

  • In fact, the developing fetus is more sensitive to a whole host of pollutants than humans at any other growth stage. A 2011 study found that certain pesticides and carcinogens were found in 99 – 100% of pregnant women. Carcinogens and toxins in the bodies of pregnant women can be passed on to their developing babies. Most people aren’t counseled on the harmful effects of these substances on reproductive health.

And let’s not forget psychology. While her book is not specifically about environmental impacts, in “Delusions of Gender,” Cordelia Fine suggests that our assumptions about the differences between men and women are skewing the way we conduct research — especially neuroscience. The book also looks at socialization — gendered paths that create the social world. It raises questions in my mind about why women are so often on the front lines in terms of addressing environmental ills.

Though most Ecowomen readers have probably come across statistics like the following, they’re worth mentioning again. Women, traditionally the keepers of house and home, are disproportionately affected by environmental stressors. According to the United Nations Development Programme:

  • “Women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water. This is equivalent to a year’s worth of labor by the entire workforce in France.

  • Increased water stress and water insecurity in many countries means that women and young girls have to walk further to collect water. In times of drought, a greater work load is placed on women’s shoulders, some spending up to eight hours a day in search of water.  In Kenya, for example, fetching water may use up to 85 percent of a woman’s daily energy intake.

  • In the Bangladesh cyclone and flood of 1991, the death rate among women aged 20-44 was 71 per 1000, compared to 15 per 1000 for men.”

In the United States, women are still disproportionately in caregiver roles. We’re more likely to see, firsthand, the emotional and physical impacts of issues like climate change: budgeting for rising food prices at the grocery store, worrying about whether one’s family will catch a newly introduced disease, or dealing with the minutia of calling the plumber after a heavy rainstorm.

It’s something we ought to talk about more.

Photos at the top via flickr users ICRISAT and US A.I.D. with a Creative Commons license