New Environmentalism: Protecting Your Female Ecology

Ecology refers to the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

I was recently introduced to the work of Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, activist, and internationally recognized expert on the environmental links to cancer and human health. Steingraber looks beyond the typically named risk factors such as family history of cancer and genetics--to factors like where you live, and what's in the water, air, food, and manufactured products you consume.

Her scientific research underlines the hazards of exposing our bodies to even the lowest levels of toxins and carcinogens, like pesticides and dioxins. But more unique is her activism, which gives voice to the basic human rights that are violated when individuals and corporations introduce carcinogenic chemicals into our environment, to be unwittingly consumed through water, air, food, and manufactured products by entire populations of people.

In her book, Living Downstream, Steingraber discusses being diagnosed with bladder cancer between her Sophomore and Junior years of college, and the belief that her cancer diagnosis had something to do with the environment in which she grew up a child.

When I read this, I was jolted back to a moment during the same time in my own life that I had not thought about in years.

I was home from college for summer vacation, also between my Sophomore and Junior years. I didn't recognize the number calling on my cell phone, but I answered it anyway. I heard the voice of my physician. It took me several seconds to register who it was. I'd never gotten a call from her until then, because she didn't call if my annual routine test results came back normal.

She told me that my pap smear from the previous week had come back from the pathologist showing abnormal cells on my cervix, a potential indicator of cervical cancer.

I was stunned. The only two other women I knew personally who had cancer were my grandmother and the mother of my then-boyfriend. Like me, they lived impeccably healthy lifestyles and had no vast or glaring family history of cancer. But I was 20 years old--too young, I thought, to have a disease that might kill me.

It was a sobering moment for the fact that I was 20 years old--in otherwise perfect health, with minimal family history of cancer and no family history of reproductive cancer, had never had a major health concern prior--and was potentially facing this life-threatening illness. And while subsequent tests confirmed that I did not have cervical cancer, I was at that time brought face to face with my body's true vulnerability to forces outside of my genetic history or environmental control.

I also recall it being the first time I felt as one with my female body. I'd never given my cervix much, if any thought, until that point.

Looking back now, I think about the years I spent before, during, and after that time, repeatedly exposing my cervix and other reproductive organs to environmental toxins by using products like conventional, non-organic tampons and spermicide-coated condoms. And I still wonder today what yet-unrevealed fate I might have sealed for myself as a result of those years of ignorance about what I was allowing into my body.

This year on May 28 an international cohort of diverse yet like-minded organizations, including Cora, joined together to mark the first ever Menstrual Hygiene Day for the purpose of breaking the taboo around menstruation and raising awareness of the need for safe and healthy menstrual hygiene practices for girls and women in developing economies. This scale and attention that was given to the day offers hope that a global movement for women's reproductive health and justice is underway around the world.

On that day, Congresswoman Caroline Maloney re-introduced a bill that would require research by the National Institute of Health into the health impacts of chemicals in tampons and other menstrual products. It seems disgraceful that the first version of this bill was introduced in 1997, and reintroduced six times since, and has yet to be passed. It's not, however, surprising, given the interests of major manufacturing corporations who profit from our ignorance.

I believe in some way we women have been afraid, perhaps subconsciously, to make noise and ask more questions about the products that only we use, for fear of what might be revealed. And so we have been satisfied with assurances, by those with vested interests, that the products so many women use are perfectly healthy and safe. But as Steingraber likes to quote the poet, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde as saying, "your silence will not protect you."

The truth is, there are carcinogens we have introduced into our environment that cannot be removed. There may be nothing we can do at this point to fully protect ourselves from what now contaminates the air, water, and food we consume. But what we can do is to demand transparency about what we are being sold. And until that is given to us to our satisfaction, we must choose what products we apply, ingest, and insert, and what standards we set for the integrity of what can be introduced into our personal ecosystems, particularly those that we use in our most sacred and intimate bodily space each month.