Katie Huffling, DNP, RN, CNM, FAAN, executive director at Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, recently gave a presentation on how environmental exposures have impacted women’s health at the 25th Annual Premier Women’s Healthcare Conference in Houston, Texas, held in-person from September 29 to October 2.
In her presentation, Huffling examined data from the World Health Organization, stating that up to 24% of global diseases are caused by environmental exposures, which could be avoided with proper protocols. This makes up a part of the 80% of major diseases significantly impacted by the environment. In children, environmental exposures are the source of 33% of diseases.1
Over 280 industrial chemicals were found in newborns during a benchmark investigation, stated Huffling.These chemicals included 217 brain/nervous system toxicants, 180 carcinogens, and 208 birth defects or abnormal development. When exposed to these chemicals, individuals may develop asthma, lung disease, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Parkinson’s, autoimmune disorders, cancer, obesity, and complications in reproductive health such as fertility and breast cancer.
These chemicals can also be found in some personal care products. Huffling provided data stating that only 11% of chemicals in cosmetics have been screened for safety. Flame retardants also contain chemicals which can increase the risk of cancer, endocrine disruptors, and neurological impacts.
To minimize risk, Huffling suggested methods of reducing exposure to these kinds of pollutants. These include keeping flame retardants from children, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, mopping floors and dusting furniture regularly, washing hands frequently, thoroughly cleaning a car’s interior, and using naturally flame-resistant fabrics.
There are also risks of exposure to harmful chemicals in certain types of food. Huffling listed a “dirty dozen” food products with these risks, which consisted of strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and hot pepper.
To counter risk, Huffling also listed a “clean 15.” These products are safe for consumption, and included: sweet corn, avocadoes, pineapples, papaya, onions, frozen sweet peas, eggplant, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushroom, cabbage, honeydew melon, kiwi, and asparagus.
Huffling also reminded attendees to avoid water contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This can help reduce exposure, along with avoiding microwave popcorn, decreasing processed food consumption, and using cast-iron pans over Teflon nonstick pans.
Phthalates were also discussed, as they can lead to metabolic issues, elevated blood pressure, precocious puberty, fertility issues, pregnancy complications such as low birth weight and preterm birth, neurodevelopment, and respiratory impacts.
To reduce exposure, Huffling recommended avoiding plastic wrap and plastic food containers, keeping plastic out of the microwave, avoiding products with fragrance or phthalate on the label, reducing fast food consumption, and supporting policies for banning phthalates.
For increased safety in women preparing to have children, Huffling suggested the Safe Baby Products Guide. This allows women to research information on specific baby products and understand how the chemicals in certain products would affect their baby’s health. Huffling reminded women that baby products can be affordable when you separate what you need from what you don’t need.
Climate change was also a concern, as a rise in temperature and changes in natural events such as drought, flooding, and forest fire affect women’s health. Many of the health impacts mentioned previously are also brought about by the effects of climate change.
The health impacts of climate change include adverse pregnancy outcomes, increased risk of certain conditions in young children with greater biological sensitivity, and increased risk of exposure to heart-related illnesses in activities of older children.
Huffling stressed the impact advocacy can make, especially among health care providers’ voices. This can be at an association and institutional level, a community level, or a state and federal level. Huffling concluded the presentation by showcasing the fracking ban in Maryland, a case where health voices made a difference.
Huffling K. Impact of environmental exposures on women’s health. Presented at: 25th Annual Premier Women’s Healthcare Conference. Houston, Texas. September 29 to October 2, 2022.