What Health Reform Won’t Heal: The Effect of Environmental Toxins on Sex and Reproduction

You may read the title of
this blog and think, “what does this have to do with reproductive health and
rights?”  The title may sound more appropriate coming from a self-help book, spiritual advisor
or therapist. However, in my job as a reproductive health and rights advocate, balancing
my attention between the present and the future is a constant challenge. Here’s
how this has played out for me recently:

What May Be:

Without needing to be a
news or political junkie, you may have noticed right now that everyone in
Washington is discussing health care reform and its affects on women’s health, generally, and the right to choose, specifically.  The Stupak-Pitts Amendment in the House bill would prohibit any
health plan participating in the nationwide exchange from offering abortion
coverage. This means virtually all insurance plans would be forced to drop
abortion services even when purchased by private funds. These discussions are
fraught with dismay, heartache and anger because it’s becoming clear that
women’s reproductive health and rights are not guaranteed but rather a
bargaining chip for those on Capitol Hill. And, disappointingly, the Obama
Administration has been quite silent in taking a stand and fighting for access
to abortion services for all women.

Women’s health
organizations have been working very hard to signal our objection to the House
Stupak-Pitts amendment, to defeat the Senate version (the Nelson Amendment) and to change the course of what may be when the Senate and House bills are reconciled, if indeed the two bills go to conference committee.

What Is:

At the same time, this
past month, two new studies have shown that exposure to chemicals found in our
homes, workplaces, and consumer products including plastics, food, sunscreen, and
water bottles, are linked to feminization
of boys
, male
sexual problems
, and erectile dysfunction. This adds to the body of evidence
that has linked toxic chemicals to a host of women’s reproductive health
problems including miscarriage, infertility, early puberty and cancer.

evidence is clear that both women and men are adversely affected by these
chemicals. Yes, it’s scary. Many of my friends, family, and coworkers are
nervous, frustrated, and becoming overwhelmed. We can’t all be amateur chemists
and nor should we be. Isn’t our government supposed to protect the public’s
health and safety? Shouldn’t the chemicals in our consumer products be tested
for safety? It turns out they’re not.

Although this comes as a
surprise to some, others are not shocked. In the thirty-three years since laws
were first passed to test potentially harmful chemicals, only two hundred of
the 80,000 chemicals produced and used in the US have been tested. Current regulations
are so ineffective that they did not allow the government to ban asbestos, a
known carcinogen. Although we can do our best as individuals to stay informed
and shop wisely, we need companies to disclose what’s in their products and for
the government to test all chemicals for safety. We need reform for the health
and safety of ourselves and for our children—and we need it now.

I feel today, as I do many days, that I’m doing a balancing act. I want and
need to fight for what may become a major setback for women’s health and rights
for my generation.
I want to expand access to
health care and eliminate the double standard that treats a woman differently
than a man when it comes to insurance coverage. 
In the same moment, I also want to address what we
now know harms women and men’s
reproductive health: toxic chemicals. The trick is to stay equally attuned to
first ensuring that a woman can get pregnant if she wishes to do so, as well as
ensure t
hat, if a woman gets pregnant, she has access to all
of the healthcare options that are the best for herself and her family.

endgame of the Stupak-Pitts in health reform amendment is our unknown future–at least until decisions are made about whether or not a conference committee will be created or the current Senate bill is taken up directly by the House.

The reality of
toxic substances in our everyday products—and the lack of government oversight
of these toxins—is our known present reality. As an advocate for women’s
reproductive health, my work is both urgent and ongoing.

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  • elliotdwilliams

    I don’t want in any way to suggest that this is not a serious problem, but I would like to point out that the article you link to about the "feminization of boys" says some things that I’m uncomfortable with. I’m not comfortable with the idea that low sperm counts somehow makes boys "less male," as if being a man is having a lot of sperm. It’s definitely a reproductive health issue, but I think we need to be wary of how we talk about it. Even worse, that article says that having less sperm is directly linked to "developing feminised behaviour," such as playing with dolls or tea sets! I hope we all understand the serious problems with the idea that our gender norms are based in biology. Again, the effects of household chemicals on reproductive health is certainly an issue that we need to work on, but we need to find ways to talk about it without equating sexual health and reproductive capacity with masculinity.

  • jodi-jacobson

    Dear Elliot,


    I completely agree with you on these points.  I am not a scientist, but the reading i have done on these issues suggests that there is in fact a measurable decline in sperm count in many countries, and that this potentially affects the ability of men who want to father a child to do so successfully. 


    It has nothing to do with "masculinity" or "femininity" or gender identity.


    The issue is what adverse changes in sexual and reproductive capacity and the development of sex organs in the womb and thereafter are being caused or influenced by environmental toxins that may, by the way, have other adverse health outcomes. 


    I also take issue with the Guardian article and believe that as we go forward we need to be careful to cite the science directly, rather than the news media’s take on the science which we all know can be…..less than ideal.


    Thanks for stepping in and calling our attention to this..



  • crowepps

    Environmental toxins are also strongly implicated in fetuses suffering neural tube defects included anencephaly. Overall, perhaps due to folic acid supplementation, the rate of neural tube defects has been declining. The exception is in areas where industrial pollution is endemic and in those areas, the rates are rising.

    It’s been 10 years since doctors first noticed the abnormally high number of babies born with neural tube defects in the Rio Grande Valley. During a 36-hour span in 1991, three babies were born in the same hospital. Different mothers, different homes. All victims of defective neural tubes.


    The vicious defects are a direct strike to the nervous system, the brain and spine. The luckier babies suffer spinal deformities or protruding backbones. Anencephalic babies are born without brains or with underdeveloped brains, and die.


    During the worst times, in 1991, babies in Cameron County were born with neural tube defects at a rate three times higher than the national average. That spike was followed by another in 1998.


    Pollution is widely believed to have contributed to the birth defects. Was it poisoned water or chemicals in the air? Sinister dust that spilled from the cluster of Mexican factories? The clouds of pesticides billowing from the tails of crop dusters? Industrial waste surging to the Atlantic in the current of the Rio Grande?


    After a decade of fear, suspicion and study, hundreds of mothers on both sides of the border still wait for answers. Science so far has been unable to tell them why their babies were fatally deformed.


    In 1998-99, an average of 13 babies per every 10,000 live births in the 14 Texas border counties suffered neural tube defects, said Peter Langlois, senior epidemiologist with the Texas Birth Defect Monitoring Division. That’s roughly double the estimated national average of 6.71 per 10,000 live births in 1995-97, the most recent available figure.

  • crowepps

    Ran across an interesting article that states that consumption of alcohol, smoking and caffeine (along with other things) also have an adverse impact on both sperm counts and sex drive. http://www.bestsyndication.com/?q=20090816_male_factor_infertility.htm Also this:

    Animal studies have identified more than 100 chemicals that produce spontaneous abortion or birth defects in offspring fathered by exposed males, said Dr. Mattison. Among them are alcohol, opiates like heroin and methadone, gases used in hospital operating rooms, lead, solvents, pesticides and a variety of industrial chemicals. … Other scientists have conducted scores of epidemiological studies looking for links between a father’s occupation and birth defects in children. They have found numerous associations:


    Wives of men exposed to vinyl chloride and waste water treatment chemicals have more miscarriages. Welders who breathe toxic metal fumes develop abnormal sperm, even after exposure stops for three weeks. Firemen who are exposed to toxic smoke have an increased risk of producing children with heart defects. Several studies have found that fathers who take two or more alcoholic drinks a day have smaller than average infants.



    That article also included this provocative quote:

    "You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out there are cultural factors to say why we have paid so much attention to the female and so little to the male," Dr. Davis said.