Women’s Health Month: The Effect of Toxic Chemicals
Women’s relationship to the environment is unique in many ways, with lifestyle choices and habits presenting special challenges, because some of the personal care products they use may contain harmful toxic substances like the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
In honor of National Women’s Health Week and Women’s Health Month, we’re spotlighting how toxic chemicals in our environment pose a particular threat to women’s health.
For instance, women use 12 personal care products on average per day, whereas men use only six. Products from lipstick to conditioner, from tap water to period-proof underwear contain toxic chemicals known to harm health, and those risks are often greater for women. The more products someone uses with worrisome ingredients, the higher the risk of exposure to those chemicals.
Few things will have as much impact on women’s health as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, if that comes to pass, as most predict it will. And if nothing else, the current spotlight on women’s reproductive health has revealed how little the public knows about female biology.
Women’s reproduction and development respond in their own way to toxic chemicals in the environment. A multitude of toxic chemicals harm women’s health, affect the onset of puberty, and impact the developing fetus.
Women are exposed to PFAS in their drinking water, some of the food they eat, cosmetics and a wide variety of products marketed specifically to them, like yoga pantsand period underwear. The constant exposure to this family of toxic chemicals has been linked to thyroid disruption, preeclampsia, infertility, shorter durations of breastfeeding and a higher risk of cancer.
Plasticizer chemicals called phthalates are also found in many categories of consumer products, including in cosmetics, fragrance, personal care products like sanitary pads, building materials, food packaging and even food. Some studies have found that almost all women in the U.S. have some level of these chemicals in their bodies. There is mounting evidence they cause chronic health issues like cardiovascular disease and early death, in addition to disruptions of the endocrine system and proper hormone functions.
People who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should also reduce their exposureto lead, mercury and parabens. Start by reviewing product labels for ingredient lists or using resources like Skin Deep® to determine whether the products that are a part of your everyday routine may contain this chemicals. In addition, make sure to find out which contaminants are in your tap water and purchase the right water filter to reduce exposure to those chemicals.
Women-headed households are more likely to live in poverty and experience food insecurity – and this is especially true for women of color. These twin burdens result in multiple health issues: lack of access to healthy foods, greater consumption of high-energy, highly processed foods containing additives and few nutrients, and a greater likelihood of metabolic disorders such as overweight and obesity.
To address some of these problems, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps, will be on the table in the looming negotiations over the 2023 Farm Bill. Every five years, Congress passes a new farm bill that, in part, determines nutrition standards and food assistance programs for low-income families, including the women who made up about 63 percent of SNAP recipients under 60 in 2018. Women of color made up about a third of adult recipients.
Contaminated tap water is also a source of exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals. The drinking water of most Americans contains PFAS. These chemicals in water are not regulated, but EWG scientists suspect that the number of Americans exposed to them from tap water has been dramatically underestimated.
Nitrate is a common contaminant in drinking water – and pollution is getting worse in some parts of the country. Studies have shown strong evidence of an increased risk of colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube birth defects from exposure to low levels of nitrate. There are many other contaminants, too, including pesticides and disinfection byproducts, among others.
People worried about their drinking water should consult EWG’s Tap Water Database, a handy tool that lets them find out what toxic chemicals are in the water where they live – and what they can do about it. But a filter chosen for the contaminants in your water – not the bottled stuff – is the solution. (Make sure to follow the directions for changing the filter – otherwise, you’re just drinking regular tap water, if not making it worse.)
The Environmental Protection Agency has recently taken steps to curb the discharge of PFAS into bodies of water that feed into our water supply, but much more action is needed.
Our food supply also affects the health of women and girls. The chemicals we ingest in many of the foods we consume can cause a range of health problems. Pesticides sprayed on produce and on grains and legumes, for instance, have been associated with cancer, neurotoxicity and harm to development and reproductive systems.
To help you avoid the risks of pesticide exposure, EWG releases its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ each year. Fruits and vegetables that rank high on our Dirty Dozen™ list are best to buy organic, whenever possible. It’s OK to consume the produce on our Clean Fifteen™ list, if you can’t get organic.
And every year Americans get sick and even die from food contamination tied to lax regulations of the food industry. EWG is advocating for tighter regulations that will eliminate this contamination and save lives.
Dietary choices and the climate crisis
Some traditional protein sources are a hazard to women, too. Some seafood is contaminated with mercury, but the federal government’s advice about what to avoid is flawed. EWG’s Consumer Guide to Seafood fills the gap, with the option to select your age and whether you’re pregnant and then see what seafood is recommended, and which to avoid.
The most traditional protein choice – meat of all kinds, but especially beef – can be a hazard to all of us, devastating the planet by exacerbating the climate crisis. Women already suffer the worst impacts of climate change – 80 percent of the people displaced globally by the climate crisis are women – and will continue to feel its effects most acutely.
Women will also be key to the solutions to climate change, and a good place to start is by creating a meal plan. EWG recommends eating an alternative protein one or more times a week – beans or lentils, tofu and nuts are good options. In honor of Women’s Health Month, consider EWG’s tips for reducing the climate footprint of what you eat.
High-energy, ultra-processed foods are by definition contaminated with unhealthy food additives such as food dye, preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, in addition to added sugar, fat and salt. These foods tend to be low in cost and more readily available in some areas than fresh produce and other healthier foods. They’ve been characterized as addictive and have been associated with an increased risk of cancer.
By contrast, organic packaged foods – which contain fewer chemicals and additives – have an overall better nutritional profile.
To find out what’s in the food you’re eating, consult Food Scores, which rates 80,000 foods in an easily searchable format, with information about products’ and ingredients’ nutrition, ingredient concerns and processing.
According to research, women are more likely to be responsible for cleaning houses, both their own and as members of the service sector – because they make up a far larger share of cleaners and housekeepers in this country, they are more exposed to toxic cleaners, particularly the stronger cleaners used in industrial settings.
EWG is committed to lowering these women’s body burden, and our Guide to Healthy Cleaning contains recommendations for affordable cleaning products. Women who work as professional cleaners can also learn how their industrial cleaners are rated.
The U.S. cosmetics industry is notoriously underregulated. The federal law designed to ensure that personal care products like cosmetics are safe has remained largely unchanged since 1938. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act devotes only a couple of pages to cosmetics regulation, and the Food and Drug Administration has banned or restricted only nine ingredients in cosmetics for safety reasons, while the European Union restricts 1,680 chemicals from personal care products.
Frustration over the glacial pace of regulation is warranted. Current U.S. law leaves the federal government powerless to recall personal care products shown to cause harm or to screen them for chemicals that have been linked to cancer, harm to the reproductive system in both men and women, and severe allergies, among other health effects.
States are no longer waiting for Congress or the FDA to act. In September 2020, California was the first state to ban 24 ingredients from personal care products with the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act. The following summer Maryland followed suit, banning the same list of chemicals. In February, California Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) introduced a bill to ban all PFAS from personal care products. That measure is advancing in the state legislature.
Women who want to limit their exposure to endocrine disruptors and other chemicals can use EWG’s Skin Deep database and Healthy Living app to choose safer alternatives. They can also look for the EWG VERIFIED™ mark on personal care products to know that it meets our highest standards for health and transparency.
Shining a light on sunscreen safety
On May 5, EWG published its 16th Guide to Sunscreens, with ratings for more than 1,850 products that advertise sun protection, such as recreational sunscreens, daily-use moisturizers with SPF and lip balms with SPF. Only one out of four products reviewed met our standards for adequate protection and did not contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical.
The FDA has determined that two active ingredients commonly found in sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are generally safe and effective for protection of the skin from the sun. The guide’s best-scoring sunscreens contain zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or both, which have fewer health concerns and offer good sun protection. Zinc oxide is stable in the sun, provides protection from UVA and UVB rays, and offers good broad-spectrum protection.
Women should also try to avoid vitamin A in sunscreens. Government studies have linked the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when it’s applied to sun-exposed skin. The good news is that EWG’s team of scientists has reviewed sunscreens for you, and more than 280 products measure up to our rigorous standards.