Women disproportionately vulnerable to health risks from chemical and waste pollution

Date: 1 March 2019

8 March 2019 - Due to a combination of socio-economic, cultural, and physiological factors, women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to the harmful impact of pollution from chemicals and waste. At the same time, in many countries, women are increasingly assuming leadership roles in raising awareness, and protecting their communities, from these impacts.

The adverse effects of hazardous chemicals and wastes on different groups of the population vary depending on the level of exposure, behavioural patterns, age, biological effect (for example, endocrine disruption), geographical location, nutritional status and co-exposure to other chemicals. Certain types of chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), can build up to dangerous levels in humans causing adverse reproductive, developmental, immunological, hormonal, and carcinogenic effects with varied impacts on vulnerable groups of the population.

Women are often more exposed to chemicals and waste as a result of different socio-economic roles, defined along gender lines. According to a study in Indonesia, and indeed in many countries, women are still expected to perform the bulk of domestic work in and around the house, including the sorting, removal, and disposal of household waste, which in many cases include open burning of plastics and other household waste. This practice exposes women to highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals with significant impacts on their health and as potential child bearers. Recent body burden analysis has shown that such chemicals do get passed out to children during pregnancy.1

In farming, more than 40% of agricultural work in developing countries is done by women and girls. Because women are twice as likely to be illiterate2 as men, vital chemical and safety information is often overlooked, increasing the likelihood of mis-handling and consequent unintended exposure to pesticides.

Cultural norms also impact on women and girls’ vulnerabilities. Of the estimated 13,000 chemicals3 used in beauty and hygiene products only about 10% have been evaluated for safety. A recent study concluded that women of colour, independent of socio-economic status, are most exposed to higher levels of such chemicals4 as a result of using products such as skin-whiteners and hair products, which often contain toxic substances, including heavy metals such as mercury and lead.

Such socio-economic and cultural factors are compounded by physiological differences between women and men, since their smaller size and role in the reproductive cycle, women are proportionately more heavily impacted than men even when exposure is the same. Up to 33% of a woman’s chemical burden can be passed on to her baby during gestation, through the placenta, as well as via breastfeeding.5 Women are often not even aware of the health risks they are facing, especially given that some of these chemicals can remain in the body for long periods and manifest themselves later in time.

On the other hand, there has been progress. Women are increasingly stepping forward to take on leadership roles to protect the most vulnerable segments of our population from the potentially harmful effects of certain chemicals and wastes. Both the Gender Heroes publication and the Gender Pioneers initiative under the BRS Conventions point to examples of the empowerment of women in marginalised communities and the impacts that their actions have had, for example, in the promotion of ecological agriculture, in the reduction of use of highly hazardous pesticides, in the protection of children from the toxics found in toys, and in the safer recovery and management of recyclable elements of e-waste from landfill sites. For more information on the BRS Gender Heroes and Gender Pioneers see: https://www.brsmeas.org/?tabid=4759

These examples emphasise the need for enhanced gender considerations and sound management of chemicals and wastes in the broader push for implementing the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Indeed the relationship between chemicals and wastes and gender, under SDG 5, requires constant emphasis, attention, and mainstreaming. This will be further explored during the next Conference of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, in Geneva from 29 April to 10 May 2019, the theme for which is “Clean Planet, Healthy People: Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste”.

Notes for Editors:

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal is the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes and is almost universal, with 187 Parties. With an overarching objective of protecting human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes, its scope covers a wide range of wastes defined as “hazardous” based on their origin and/or composition and characteristics, as well as two types of wastes defined as “other wastes” – household waste and incinerator ash. See www.basel.int

The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, is jointly administered by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment (UNEP). The 161 Parties to this legally-binding Convention share responsibility and cooperate to safely manage chemicals in international trade. To date 50 chemicals and pesticides are listed in its Annex III. The Convention does not introduce bans but facilitates the exchange of information among Parties on hazardous chemicals and pesticides, and their potential risks, to inform and improve national decision making. In addition, through the PIC Procedure, it provides a legally-binding mechanism to support national decisions on the import of selected chemicals and pesticides in order to minimize the risk they pose to human health and the environment. See www.pic.int

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment. Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The Convention requires its Parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment. As of today, this legally-binding Convention has 182 Parties, giving it almost universal coverage. To date, 28 chemicals of global concern have been listed under the Stockholm Convention.

For more on gender aspects of chemicals and waste, see https://www.brsmeas.org/?tabid=3651 or contact Susan WINGFIELD, Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (UNEP), Geneva: +41-79-233-3218, +41-22-917-78406, susan.wingfield@brsmeas.org

For BRS conventions general media enquiries see www.brsmeas.org or contact Charlie AVIS, Public Information Officer (UN Environment), Geneva +41-79-730-4495


1 From the BRS Scoping Study on Gender in Indonesia, full report here: https://www.brsmeas.org/?tabid=5816

2 Both statistics from FAO data summarised in the infographic at: https://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/180754/

3 Zota & Shamasunder, 2017, The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern, American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Vol 127(4):418 online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28822238

4 Ibid

5 UNDP, 2017, Gender Mainstreaming - a Key Driver of Development in Environment & Energy. Available online: https://www.undp.org/content/dam/undp/library/Environment%20and%20Energy/Sustainable%20Energy/Gender_Mainstreaming_Training_Manual_2007.pdf