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Environmental and Occupational Health

Women Changing the World, Protecting the Environment

Taking action is often complicated—there are bureaucracies to fight, chemistry to learn, and the power of polluters to deal with—but it is definitely not impossible. Consider the efforts of these women who exposed environmental health hazards and worked to eliminate them. Each one has left a lasting impact on the world.

Alice Hamilton, who lived from 1869 until 1970, is one of the most significant grandmothers of today’s environmental movement. One of the first women physicians, Hamilton is considered the founder of the field of occupational health. She made a home at Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, working with immigrant workers facing severe job hazards. Her book Exploring the Dangerous Trades revealed how lead affected workers and their children. She helped create workers’ compensation, industrial medicine, and justice for workers.

Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring (1962) exposed the widespread use and dangers of pesticides in our environment. Her research brought this to public attention, led to the U.S. ban on DDT, and helped launch the American environmental movement. Carson’s efforts live on through organizations such as the Silent Spring Institute, an excellent resource for news and studies on environmental health issues and links between the environment and breast cancer.

Lois Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978, forcing New York State to recognize that toxic waste had contaminated the Niagara Falls community. Members did health surveys, signed petitions, confronted officials, picketed, blocked buses, and testified in Washington until the government evacuated one thousand families, bought their homes, and established a safety plan and a health fund to cover future problems. Gibbs now leads the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, organized the BE SAFE Campaign for Precautionary Action in support of communities, and frequently testifies before Congress on environmental protection issues.

Hazel Johnson, often called the mother of the environmental justice movement, founded People for Community Recovery in 1979, when she learned about Southeast Chicago’s high cancer rate among African-American women. She documented health problems by going door to door, testified in Congress, and helped to educate and empower her community. Johnson died in early 2011, after many years of leading “toxic tours” of Chicago neighborhoods.

Peggy Shepard, a former journalist, cofounded West Harlem Environmental Action, now WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a coalition of young feminists and older neighborhood women, in 1988, to challenge the location of a sewage treatment plant. The group won a sizable settlement and the right to oversee plant remediation. This victory also established a community’s right to seek redress of a grievance. She later served as the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and is cochair of the Northeast Environmental Justice Network. Shepard and WE ACT are still doing community-based action, research, and public education linking health care to environmental justice. She partners with Columbia University’s Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health on its pregnancy and environment project.

Patty Martin was mayor of a small town in Washington state in 1992 when she, along with farmers and neighbors, discovered that hazardous waste was being blended into fertilizers, causing crop failure, environmental damage, and health risks. In 2000, after being targeted by agribusiness and losing her campaign for reelection, Martin founded Safe Food and Fertilizer; in the fall of 2003, she took the fight to the federal courts. She continues to support the health of farming communities and the food supply.

Sandra Steingraber (steingraber.com) has been an inspiring leader in bringing attention to environmental conditions that impair reproductive health. An ecologist, cancer survivor, and mother, Steingraber wrote a powerful book— Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment—that has been transformed into a film. Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood explores how mothers can care for their children in a toxic world. Her report The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls, written for the Breast Cancer Fund, is another major contribution. In 2006 she was honored with a Hero Award from the Breast Cancer Fund for leadership in preventing environmental causes of breast cancer.

Theo Colborn is influencing the way we look at reproductive health. She has transformed what we know about endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), chemicals that subtly affect our hormonal chemistry and development. Her 1997 book Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story, cowritten with Dianne Dumanoski and John Peter Meyers, brought this issue to public attention; it has since been translated into eighteen languages. She founded TEDX—The Endocrine Disruption Exchange —where health providers and the general public can learn about the impacts of toxics on reproductive health, pregnancy, and early childhood.

Combating the environmental and health risks in our workplaces, homes, and neighborhoods, as well as trying to make sense of all the unknowns, is not easy. But more and more of us are building knowledge, working across differences, pushing for answers, and fighting for prevention and for precautionary measures. Women like Loretta Ross, Theo Colborn, and Katsi Cook are urging us to join them in their daily battles. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain—for ourselves, our families, and our communities— by joining them.

Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


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