Environmental Toxic Exposure as a Gender Parity Issue

International Women's Day (March 8) celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Established over a century ago, it is also a day that marks a call to action about what we can do to help drive women’s equality.

On this International Women’s Day, we wanted to bring attention to an international campaign about the reproductive health risk of environmental toxic exposure.
Reducing the disease burden of toxic environmental exposures from food, air, water, and other sources of pollution will contribute importantly to improving women’s health and ensuring environmental sustainability.

“This is a gender equity issue. It’s a reproductive health issue, and it is also a maternal and child health issue,” said Jeanne A. Conry, MD, PhD., a past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Dr. Jeanne ConryIn 2015, Dr. Conry was a co-author of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) 2015 report on the reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals. The report, Reproductive Health Impacts of Exposure to Toxic Environmental Chemicals, analyzed the impact of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals, and provided recommendations for physicians.

“This is an important reproductive health issue. I’m glad FIGO supported it,” said Dr. Conry.

FIGO is composed of 130 professional societies of obstetricians and gynecologists worldwide, on every continent except the Antarctic.  

According to the report, “exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy and lactation is ubiquitous. Research based on representative sampling of the population at large has documented that virtually every pregnant woman in the USA has at least 43 different environmental chemicals in her body.” And once toxic chemicals enter the body, “the reproductive health impacts can be many, can be varied, and can manifest across the lifespan of individuals and future generations.”

The report also outlined the global health and economic burden as being more than a million deaths and billions of dollars every year.

“Exposure to ambient and household air pollution results in at least 7 million deaths a year worldwide. The costs of pesticide poisoning over 15 years (2005 – 2020) among farm workers on small land holdings in 37 Sub-Saharan African countries are estimated by United Nations Environment Programme to be US$66 billion.”

“Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals during pregnancy and breastfeeding is ubiquitous and is a threat to healthy human reproduction and child development.”
FIGO recommends that reproductive and other health professionals advocate for policies to prevent exposure to toxic environmental chemicals, work to ensure a healthy food system for all, make environmental health part of health care, and champion environmental justice.

In 2013 a Joint Committee Opinion from ACOG’s Committee on Underserved Women and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) was published regarding the impact of environmental exposures on women’s health. And in October 2015, FIGO published its scientific opinion identifying and making recommendations on exposure to environmental toxics and women’s health just ahead of the 2015 FIGO World Congress.

After the release of the 2015 report, FIGO established a global Working Group on Reproductive and Developmental Environmental Health (RDEH). The RDEH includes scientists and physicians from diverse backgrounds. Their goal is to develop a multi-year plan for training and capacity building, research, and advocacy on the impact of environmental toxics to women’s and children’s health.  

“We are making great strides, but to be successful we need the collaboration of and integration with FIGO’s 130 membership organizations,” said Dr. Conry. “Our success will come when information about environmental toxic exposure is understood, and women, men, and children are protected from such exposures.”

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