Plastic pollution is a major global issue. However, many people do not take it seriously and are not concerned about it. It appears that no one can avoid being affected by plastic pollution these days, especially women, due to a number of factors including biological differences, gender roles, and inequality.
A team of researchers led by Stefanie Hellweg, a professor of ecological systems design at the Swiss university ETH Zurich, found at least 10,500 chemicals are used to make plastic. Some of these chemicals cause serious negative health impacts. The lead author of the study and a doctoral student at ETH Zurich, Helene Wiesinger, says that at least 1,000 of the chemicals identified can be harmful even in small doses.
Women and men are exposed to different workplace hazards due to biological gender differences in body size, amount of adipose tissue, reproductive organs, hormones, and other biological and physiological differences (Lynn, 2017). Generally, women have a higher proportion of adipose tissue compared to men. Adipose tissue is the site for energy storage, but it is also a potential site for toxicant bioaccumulation. According to a study by Jackson, E. et al. (2017), the potential of toxicant bioaccumulation can vary among different lipid classes. For example, phospholipids have a moderate polarity, while triglycerides and free fatty acids display neutral polarity, which can influence their tendency to accumulate toxicants.
The higher the levels of estrogen in women, the greater the volume of adipose tissue storing the toxins. Women will also be more sensitive to toxins during puberty, pregnancy, lactation and menopause. Chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) can cause adverse birth outcomes in children. Many studies have implied a correlation between breast cancer and exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the womb and after birth (Marine Plastic Litter in East Asian Seas: Gender, Human Rights and Economic Dimensions, n.d.). A study from the Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center from 2004-2014 found a phthalate called di-2-ethylhexyl (DEHP) in more than 250 American women, in which can cause miscarriage to women with the highest concentrations. DEHP is a plasticiser that can make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics more flexible and long-lasting (Feldscher, 2016).
Meanwhile, BPA is linked to infertility, ovarian cysts, and ovarian cancer. Scientists in China reviewed six studies on how BPA impacts female fertility in 2016. BPA disrupts glands correlated to puberty and may cause structural changes to the uterus and ovaries, which are specifically impacted by BPA. One early study on women undergoing fertility treatment discovered that individuals with greater levels of BPA in their systems had fewer eggs mature enough to be fertilised (Parley, 2021). In addition, BPA exposure in females can damage meiosis initiation (cell division), modify steroidogenesis (the process of converting cholesterol into biologically active steroid hormones), and reduce oocyte (egg cell) quality in women undergoing IVF (Flaws et al., n.d.).
Besides that, many feminine hygiene products may contain BPA or bisphenol S (BPS). A woman can use an average of 11,000 tampons or pads in her lifetime. Tampons and pads contain up to 6% and 90% plastic, respectively. That is 11,000 times more likely to be contaminated by dangerous plastic chemicals. According to a recent study by Gao, C, J, and Kannan, K (2020), there is significant phthalate, paraben, and bisphenol exposure through the dermal absorption pathway from the use of pads, panty liners, and tampons. These chemicals come in contact with our skin and even end up adhering to the side of our vagina, causing a serious health hazard.
Another contributing factor to why women are more vulnerable to plastic pollution is the lower wages and lack of decent jobs. Due to gender disadvantages in education in some developing countries, women are blocked out of higher positions. According to a study conducted in Brasilia, Brazil, 67% of the waste pickers are women (Marques et al., 2020). Women waste pickers mostly use their bare hands to deal with the waste because they lack personal protective equipment, pushcarts, tricycles, and storage facilities compared to men. Due to this problem, women waste pickers are highly exposed to the toxic hazard that can adversely affect their health. The toxic hazards from the plastics are able to cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth to women who work as waste pickers in the landfills as they are exposed to the chemicals (Donovan & Obiria, 2022).
Moreover, the chemicals from the plastics can cause irregular menstrual cycles especially to waste picker women from the landfills. Wanjira, a woman waste picker at Dandora Hills, Nairobi, Kenya, has faced a heavy, painful period twice a month for almost two years. Some of the waste pickers also faced the same issues in one of the interviews by The Fuller Project. From the 32 women, there are 21 women that have irregular periods and had their periods once or twice a month while the others had their periods after eight months (Donovan & Obiria, 2022).
According to UNEP, a study from 2019 shows that diabetic women in Mexico had higher levels of BPA in their urine, and the exposure levels were higher for older women. The burning of plastic waste which is a typical fire-starting practice in many Global South countries, is immensely carcinogenic due to dioxins, which are associated with the plastic waste burnt and cause a negative impact especially on women (Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, n.d.).
Though lead and cadmium are widely used for various products, exposure to lead and cadmium could cause cancer. Lead is associated with an elevated risk of lung, stomach, and brain (gliomas) cancers and is classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Cancer Research, whereas cadmium is associated with elevated risks of lung, prostate, and kidney cancers. Lead concentration in circulation is linked with the delayed start of female puberty and also linked with earlier menopause onset, which implies that exposure to lead may decrease the reproductive life span of women (Flaws et al., n.d.).
It is obvious that women are more affected by plastic pollution than men. In order to save our wives, mothers, daughters, and loved ones, we must do our best to reduce and break free from plastic. “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” —Anne Marie Bonneau
This article is contributed by Ung Jun Min & Qaisara Izzaty, interns of SAM
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