Women are more affected than men by plastics. Biological reasons are part of the problem: their bodies react in different ways to toxins, and the hygiene products that women use are often contaminated. But alternatives do exist.
The toxins contained in plastics have different effects on men and women, both in the workplace and in everyday life. This is partly due to biology - the differences in body size and the proportion of fatty tissue - but it is also due to the gender roles that women find themselves filling. Women’s bodies contain more fat than men’s, and therefore accumulate more oil-soluble chemicals such as phthalate plasticizers. The female body is especially sensitive to toxins during life phases such as puberty, pregnancy, lactation and menopause.
During pregnancy, this can have serious consequences for the unborn child. Chemicals that function in a similar way to hormones - known as endocrine disruptors - are problematic. Because the placenta is not a secure barrier, these compounds may disturb all the developmental phases in the womb that are controlled by hormones. That can lead to malformations in newborns, as well as diseases that appear much later in life. Endocrine disruptors affect both men and women to the same degree. The World Health Organization suspects that they are responsible for hormone-related forms of cancer such as breast and testicular cancer. It also seems possible that they affect fertility and sperm quality. Endocrine disruptors may also contribute to obesity, diabetes, neurological diseases, premature onset of puberty, and congenital malformations such as cryptorchidism (absence of one or both testes from the scrotum) and hypospadias (malformation of the male urethra). Increasing numbers of children are being born who have been exposed to harmful substances.
Women come into contact with the dangers of plastics in many different places. Some 30 percent of the workers in the plastics industry worldwide are women. So cheap plastic items can be mass-produced for the global market, women in developing countries are commonly employed in industrial production plants at low wages, very often in hazardous conditions and without protective clothing. A Canadian study found that women who handle plastics in the car industry are five times more likely to develop breast cancer.
Feminine hygiene products may also be problematic. Tampons may comprise up to six percent plastic, and sanitary pads consist of up to 90 percent petroleum-based plastic. Both may contain the hormonally active compounds bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS). Tampon applicators also often contain phthalates. In the USA, a woman may use between 12,000 and 15,000 of these items in her lifetime. Alternatives include washable reusable products and reusable menstrual cups.
In poorer regions, many women and girls cannot afford to use such hygiene articles, or these products are simply not available locally. That may force a girl to miss school for an average of five days a month during her periods. Cheaper and safer reusable products could close this gap and reduce pollution and waste. Most single-use hygiene articles end up in landfills, in water sources and the sea, and clog sewage systems.
Cosmetics may also be a source of harmful substances. One-quarter of all women in western industrial countries use up to 15 different products every day. These commonly contain up to 100 chemicals, some of which are harmful to health. Many cosmetics contain microplastics, which can pass through the placenta into the foetus. Last but not least, women are still often responsible for doing the housework, or work as cleaners. Cleaning products also contain microplastics and harmful substances such as surfactants and solvents. Choosing products more carefully, and using environmentally friendly materials or conventional agents such as soft soap and citric acid, could reduce the burden on mankind and the environment. But such consumer choices do not free producers of the responsibility to replace harmful ingredients and raw materials.
When waste is exported to developing countries, landfills become important sources of income for the poor. Millions of waste-pickers around the world, often women and children from the poorest sections of society, pick over such sites for recyclable plastics and electrical waste. Often the only source of family income comes from these highly toxic locations. To get to valuable copper, PVC-coated cables are burned. The smoke contains highly toxic dioxins that are harmful to reproduction, damage the foetus, and can cause cancer. It is mostly women who burn household rubbish in backyards or who sort through toxic trash.
Knowledge about the dangers posed by plastics is unevenly spread throughout the world. Women are an important target group in efforts to trigger a fundamental switch in attitudes and everyday practices, as well as in demanding political action. Women are often more sensitive to various dangers than are men, and they are less prepared to put people and the planet at risk. That is true in their roles both as entrepreneurs and as consumers and managers of their families. There is considerable evidence that they act in a more environmentally responsible way than men. Initiatives that aim to reduce the consumption of plastic and protect people and the environment from pollutants are often started by women. They deserve an equal place in politics, businesses, families and communities so they can make an even greater contribution to bringing about a plastic and toxin-free society and environment.