A Cleaner, Greener Planet

Aparna Krishnaswamy and Elizabeth Arndorfer

As pro-choice individuals and organizations who believe in enabling people to decide when the time is right (and when it is not) to have children, environmental efforts are not just nice "add-ons" but a fundamental part of our mission.

Earth Day never used to be a day when
reproductive health organizations were particularly busy. But on this
April 22nd, 2009, things are looking very different.  

Reproductive health, rights and justice
organizations across the country are doing extraordinary things to improve
the health and lives of women and men by fighting for a greener, cleaner
planet.  Consider the following: 

  • The California Healthy Nail
    Salon Collaborative is sponsoring a research meeting in Oakland, California
    to improve the health and safety of salon workers exposed to chemicals
    that may harm their reproductive health and fertility. 
  • In the Pajaro Valley of California,
    Planned Parenthood of Mar Monte is organizing a community-based collaborative
    for farm workers and their families who are exposed to pesticides that
    may be contributing to high rates of miscarriage, infertility and early
    puberty.
  • The Reproductive Health Technologies
    Project (RHTP), the D.C.-based organization where we work, is advocating
    for passage of the Kid Safe Chemicals Act
    – the first real effort to regulate chemicals in the U.S. in more
    than 30 years.
  • Planned Parenthood of Northern
    New England recently launched a new website and is hosting a myriad of green events (Where
    is my Recycled Prom Dress?…)

It may seem surprising that reproductive
health and justice organizations are spending time and resources on
these "environmental" issues.  But with evidence mounting that
chemicals in our everyday environment – from the food we eat, to cleaners
we use – are having an impact on our reproductive health, such efforts
are vital.  As pro-choice individuals and organizations who believe
in enabling people to decide when the time is right (and when it is
not) to have children, these environmental efforts are not just nice
"add-ons" but a fundamental part of our mission.  

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Take nail polish, for example, which
typically contains dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and formaldehyde.
All of these chemicals are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals —
chemicals that interfere with some aspect of our endocrine system, the
system that controls our metabolism and reproduction. These chemicals
can exert their effects by mimicking hormones, preventing harmful substances
from leaving the body, and tricking the body into ignoring its natural
protective signals. It is no surprise, then, that a chemical like toluene
has been linked to reduced fertility, miscarriages and menstrual irregularities.
Then consider the salon workers and owners who often spend 10 plus hours
a day in close proximity to such chemicals. The cumulative effect of
exposure to these chemicals at work and at home on these women, their
families and their community can be devastating.  It is ironic
that some of the very things we use to express and celebrate our femininity
are actually compromising what makes us biologically female.  

Although the facts are clear, taking
up the call for a greener, cleaner planet isn’t always easy or straightforward. 
Take Gretchen Raffa, the Community Organizer for Planned Parenthood
of Connecticut.  She realized the potential impact of toxicants
on the clients at Planned Parenthood so when the Coalition for a Safe
and Healthy Connecticut approached Planned Parenthood to join the coalition,
she agreed.  She even agreed to testify in favor of a bill banning
Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been linked to reproductive health
problems including harm to a pregnant woman and her developing fetus. 

Likewise, when Asian Communities for
Reproductive Justice started digesting the work that they had been doing
with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and their POLISH initiative, they decided to take their advocacy
a step further and broaden the lens.  They have just finished a
thought provoking report on climate change and reproductive justice,
focusing on the mid-sized industries such as the nail salon industry,
where women of color and immigrant women tend to be employed. They realized
that cleaning up the nail salons was important but so was the larger
community where these industries sit.  The report builds the case for how climate justice solutions cannot succeed without advancing worker health and safety and reproductive justice. (The report will be available by May 15 – email info@reproductivejustice.org for more information.)

Similarly at RHTP,
we have been following the impact of chemicals on reproductive health
for several years.  We initially looked at these issues from a
bird’s eye view – tracking policy developments and trying to wrap
our heads around the science.  So how did the Kid Safe Chemicals
Act
become one of our highest organizational priorities?  Like
Gretchen, like ACRJ, we have taken a somewhat winding path.  We
realized that we couldn’t approach this issue with a chemical by chemical
ban – nor could we or should we put the onus on people – usually
women – to buy products free of harmful chemicals.  We need a
paradigm shift in how we regulate chemicals in this country – and
the Kid Safe Chemicals Act is a critical leap in the right direction. 

So on this Earth Day we celebrate and
applaud the amazing work of reproductive health and justice organizations
who are working for a greener, cleaner planet.  

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