Environmental Chemical Exposure Endangers Reproductive Health

By Deborah Ortiz

Maybe you have read about “endocrine disruptors” and filed it away as an “environmental issue.” These endocrine disruptor chemicals are found in common consumer products such as pesticides, fertilizers and cleaning chemicals, and are a serious reproductive health issue as well. They have been linked to fertility problems, early puberty in children, poor birth outcomes and certain reproductive cancers.

It is important that we increase community awareness about the intersection of environmental exposure and reproductive health. I am in a unique position to know about the threat because our clinicians often see the troubling effects, ranging from low self-esteem due to early puberty, to problems conceiving healthy children, to a higher risk for breast cancer in young women.

Planned Parenthood’s mission is to promote the health and safety of pregnant women and children by providing primary and prenatal care to uninsured families, many of which work in agricultural communities and in places that expose them and their children to pesticides, plastics, perfumes and sources of endocrine disruptor chemicals.

That’s why we began a series of community forums in Palo Alto last year, with the support of the Compton Foundation, Acterra and Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP), to let parents of young children and grandparents know how environmental chemicals may be harming their children’s reproductive health and the risk of exposing women to environmental contaminants during pregnancy.

The great turnout we had at all three sessions – covering early puberty, fertility and pesticides – showed that there is a strong appetite for more information about how we can reduce our exposure.

Elizabeth Arndorfer, a Palo Alto attorney who works with RHTP, said she first became concerned when she saw that her 7-year-old daughter showed physical signs of early puberty. “It makes perfect sense that Planned Parenthood would be one of the messengers to let people know that these chemicals are everywhere and you can do something about it,” she said. “You can stop microwaving plastic and check to see what kind of lotions and shampoo your kids are using.” All the evidence suggests that once people know more about the risks of endocrine disruptors, they will make a change in their routines, whether it's in the kitchen or at the grocery store.

In recent months, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte broadened its audience to the Pajaro Valley Health Action (PVHAT) collaborative of local farm workers, environmental researchers and leaders of agribusiness to discuss pesticide exposure and its effects on the reproductive health of farm workers in the Pajaro Valley of California. This project is funded by the Community Clinics Initiative, a joint effort of the Tides Foundation and the California Endowment, and brings groups with disparate views on the subject to a roundtable conversation.

Traci Townsend, our project manager, has been encouraged by the level of participation and cooperation among those who are often on opposite sides of the fence. More than three dozen team members showed up for the first PVHAT meeting in Watsonville in February.

"The thing that was really exciting about this meeting is that you could see that regardless of what side of the table people were sitting on, they want to do something," Townsend said. "Everyone is really engaged."

Getting these groups to come together and talk constructively about community-based health is an important first step. As science provides the foundation for policymakers to provide safer and healthier neighborhoods and workplaces for our families, our mission to protect and preserve reproductive health will be more attainable. Elizabeth Arndorfer was right; it makes perfect sense for Planned Parenthood to lead the way on addressing a health issue that has a profound effect on mothers and children.

We have the potential to educate our communities and clients in a way that will touch the lives of so many women of reproductive age. We will also be involved in introducing more federal and state bills that will take the next step toward preventing the consequences of exposure to some of these chemicals.
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Deborah Ortiz is vice president of public affairs for California at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte and a former California state senator.
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Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 4/09

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