Environmental Threats to Women’s Health:

Protecting a Human Right.

J.P. Myers, Ph.D. Director
W. Alton Jones Foundation

United Nations
Commission on the Status of Women
3 March 1998
New York

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This century has witnessed many changes, some dramatic and conspicuous, some seemingly mundane and subtle.

Some of these changes represent remarkable progress: amazing achievements, such as the eradication of small pox, the global acknowledgment of human rights, and significant progress, albeit spastic and uneven, toward economic development in nations around the world. We still have a long way to go to achieve just, healthy and sustainable economic prosperity, but we have come far already. It is progress we can celebrate.

There is another change which few have noticed, and that is what I would like to address today. It is an issue which raises important and unanswered questions about women’s health, about children’s health, about the unintended consequences of some types of economic activities, and about human rights.

It is a complex issue which arises from a simple observation.

If I were to take a sample of the blood of anyone in this room, any one, and deliver it to the US Centers for Disease Control and ask for a careful, state of the art analysis of its content, their report would confirm the presence of two hundred or more chemicals in the blood of that one person–any or all of us–which, before this century, were not found in human body chemistry.

All of us in this room, no matter where we are from or how we have lived our lives, contain chemicals unknown to previous generations of people… not just some previous generations. All generations. Unprecedented in human evolution. And we also contain levels of contamination of certain toxic metals at levels many times those of pre-industrial society.

Let me go farther. It is very unlikely that one baby has been born anywhere on the planet within the last 3 generations without at least some exposure to novel chemicals in the womb. Some with a little exposure. Some with a lot. But none with none.

What does this mean and how did it happen?

Frankly, science does not tell us enough to understand all the health impacts. We know little about the impacts of most contaminants. Some we know are quite dangerous. Some are most likely safe. But for the vast majority we lack even the most rudimentary data. We–all of us here in this room, as well as our children and grandchildren–are all walking experiments.

Many of these are chemicals accumulated accidentally by the mother as she grows to adulthood prior to pregnancy. Transferred to the developing fetus in her womb, some of these chemicals alter sexual development. Some undermine intelligence and behavior. Others make our children’s bodies less resistant to disease. When they get sick, we think it’s a virus or a bacteria or a parasite, but without the contamination they would have beat the infectious agent easily. Especially for impacts related to reproduction and fertility, sometimes the effects don’t appear until a child reaches puberty or afterward, even though the exposure took place in the womb.

How did this happen? How is it that we in this predicament of an unintended global experiment with human health?

I would point to three related causes: ignorance, time-lags and scale.

First, there is ignorance. Despite the remarkable progress of medical science in the 20th century, we understand only dimly the complex control mechanisms that control the development of the fetus from conception through to birth and beyond to adulthood. We know this process is controlled by natural chemicals. We know that synthetic chemicals and metals, especially lead, mercury and cadmium, can interfere with it, but we understand little of the underlying biology–enough to know that effects are manifest but not to anticipate the unexpected. Indeed, if this century’s experience with chemicals and health has taught us anything, it is that we do not do very well at anticipating unexpected forms of toxicity.

Who would have imagined, for example,

Second are the time lags between cause, effect and understanding. The sciences of toxicology and epidemiology are slow and deliberate. The pace at which these two sciences move forward is not commensurate with the pace of commercialization of new products. Even in the United States, most chemical products in widespread use have not been tested adequately for their effects on health. The result is that we wind up performing decades long experiments on the public and we do so even lacking adequate monitoring systems to alert us to problems.

Third, there is scale. Modern commerce is global. So is its waste stream. Let me give you an example:

So where do these leave us, these three factors, ignorance, scale and time lags. They leave us in the midst of many simultaneous experiments being played out at global scale It isn’t even a good experiment, because there are no controls. There is only one planet.

Throughout human evolution we have always had a refuge from our mistakes. Early on, if we depleted the game in one valley we moved to the next. As we polluted one river course, there was always another… and if the pollution wiped out one clan or one township, well in the grand scheme of things, there were always other people somewhere else. No pollutants affected everyone.

This is now changed irrevocably and fundamentally.

It’s the sort of experiment that would be rejected by any medical ethics board in the world. Medical experiments on people begin with the premise of prior informed consent.

I ask you: Who asked us? Who asked you in this room? Did someone seek your permission to pollute your body and your womb with chemicals that put your children at risk?

The combination of these factors–ignorance, scale and time-lags, the way they now irrefutably lead to chemical trespass with significant but poorly understood risks, and that these experiments are truly global in nature, this realization challenges the way we must manage commerce and development.

Health experts have told us for some time that if want the people of the world prepared to engage in development and seize the opportunities that economic growth can create for them, we have to ensure that mothers, prior to and during pregnancy, have adequate micronutrients in their diets. Adequate nutrition is not only necessary, it is a human right.

We know enough now about some of these micro-contaminants to know that their presence in the womb works in a polar opposite way, it undermines an individual’s ability, subsequently in life, to pursue new economic and social opportunities. It erodes their potential.

A womb free of contaminants is also a human right, and we must engage with business, commerce and government to ensure that the rules of economic development guarantee that each baby born into this world has the opportunity to be born toxic free.

And as we seek to achieve this goal, the thing I try to keep most clearly in mind is something I said early: we do very poorly at anticipating the unexpected. Products get invented and developed and deployed into global commerce at an amazing pace today. I worry that one of these new products will turn around and bite us, and because of the time-lags inherent in the system–sometimes decades or more–by the time the problem is revealed it will be too late to correct. And worse, because we now play at a global scale, the effects can be global, also.

We need to acknowledge these risks and begin to manage the development of new products and processes accordingly, using precautionary approaches which place the burden of proof on those who assert safety, rather than imposing yet another round of experiments on the public’s health.

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