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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Environmental Threats to Women’s Health

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Proper management of hazardous waste is of the utmost importance to the health and wellbeing of people in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), hazardous waste covers waste that is detrimental or could be detrimental to human or environmental health. Although states have regulations in place for managing various types of waste, the primary federal regulations overseeing the management of hazardous waste are the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. The Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 provides the EPA with the ability to regulate hazardous waste from its creation to its disposal. The Federal Hazardous and Solid Waste amendments were added to the RCRA in 1984 and were designed to help decrease waste, require facilities disposing of, storing, and treating hazardous waste to give corrective action for hazardous waste released into the environment, and to prohibit land disposal of hazardous waste. The RCRA also defines hazardous waste, identifies the characteristics of hazardous waste, and lists examples of hazardous waste from both specified and non-specified sources.  The RCRA also provides standards for generators, transporters, management facilities, and operators and owners of facilities that dispose of, store, and treat hazardous waste to follow in the management, creation, transportation, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste. 

Hazardous waste that is not properly managed can result in contamination of water sources, food sources, soil, and air, which may impact the health and wellbeing of people. Given that improper disposal of hazardous wastes can lead to devastating environmental and health consequences, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA created a superfund to clean hazardous waste sites that were previously “abandoned” or left “uncontrolled” as well as gives the EPA the authority to determine any parties accountable for release and clean up of hazardous waste sites.  In the United States, the EPA tracks sites that have either released or may release hazardous substances (called Superfund sites) in the National Priorities List.

Number of National Priority Sites in States

STATENumber of National Priority Sites in States
Arizona9
California 97
Georgia 16
Hawaii3
Massachusetts 31
New Jersey 114
New York85
South Carolina26
Texas55
Wisconsin 36
U.S. Total1335

Socio-economic and racial disparities exist in relation to residential proximity to hazardous waste facilities and hazardous waste disposal sites. A 2007 study, using 2000 U.S. Census data, investigated socio-economic and racial disparities for people living in a 3-kilometer radius from hazardous waste facilities, identified as a “host neighborhood”. The study found that 55.9% of people living in host neighborhoods were people of color and 18.3% of people living in host neighborhoods were in poverty. A 2013 study, also using 2000 U.S. Census data, found that 55.9% of Black or African American residents in South Carolina lived near a Superfund site even though the population of people who were Black or African American only made up 29.5% of the total South Carolina population. This study also found that although only 14.2% of  the population of South Carolina lived below the poverty line, 57.2% of people living below the poverty line in South Carolina lived near Superfund sites. If socio-economic and racial disparities associated with residential proximity to hazardous waste facilities and hazardous waste disposal sites are similar in 2020 as they were in 2000, women of color and women living in poverty may be more at risk of living near hazardous waste facilities and hazardous waste disposal sites.

The health impact of living near hazardous waste has also been investigated. Overall, the EPA notes that hazardous substances can cause a variety of health issues in humans such as irritation, headaches, issues with breathing, cancer, physiological issues or malfunctioning, and birth defects. Two large analyses investigating the health consequences of living near hazardous waste sites note that further research is needed to definitively determine if living near hazardous waste causes adverse health outcomes in people., The analysis of Brender and colleagues, after reviewing several smaller studies investigating the health impact of living near hazardous waste sites, noted living near hazardous waste sites may be associated with generally negative health outcomes such as diabetes, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) exposure, and end-stage renal disease, although further research must be conducted into these issues. Other smaller studies of investigating various Superfund sites and communities surrounding them have recorded adverse health outcomes for those areas. A 2014 study of hospital discharges in New York State, found that women who lived in a zip code near hazardous waste sites that released volatile organic compounds had significantly higher rates of hospital discharge rates for breast cancer than women in zip codes not near hazardous waste sites. Likewise, a 2018 study found that average rates of cancer incidence significantly increased as the number of Superfund hazardous waste sites increased for a county. In particular, exposure to hazardous waste sites can have adverse consequences on the health and safety of pregnant women, new mothers, and infants. Proximity to hazardous waste sites has been associated with the likelihood of pregnant women having children who experience a variety of negative congenital health outcomes.  A 2002 study investigating birth defects in children from racial and ethnic minorities born between 1983-1986 in California, found children whose mothers were possibly exposed to hazardous waste had a slightly higher risk of being born with a neural tube birth defect such as anencephaly. A 2011 study investigating births data from 1989-2003 for mothers living 5 kilometers from a hazardous waste superfund site, found that maternal residential proximity to a hazardous waste superfund site, prior to the site being cleaned up,  resulted in infants having a 20% to 25% increased risk of possessing some form of a congenital abnormality. Continued efforts must be made by both state and the federal government to effectively manage hazardous waste and clean up hazardous waste sites, especially sites near residential areas.

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