Chemical Entanglements: Gender, Chemicals, and the Public Health

Petrochemicals, which are manufactured from crude oil and natural gas liquids, are used to produce thousands of products, including plastics, soaps, detergents, paints, drugs, fertilizer, pesticides, explosives, synthetic fibers. Petrochemicals are found in cars, clothing, computers and other electronic equipment, and furniture. Some of these can release volatile organic compounds (VOC) into the air, which can cause respiratory health problems. Exposure to toxic environmental agents has been linked to adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes. Further, many chemical exposures harmful to health disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including women, children, and underserved communities. Limiting exposure can seem a formidable challenge but is necessary and a pressing issue for all.

In addition, the extraction and processing of oil and natural gas takes place, as does the manufacture of consumer objects made from petrochemical ingredients, in many locations throughout the US. The environmental and health affects for nearby residents are often insufficiently regulated or monitored. The recent methane leak in Porter Ranch, CA, which led to evacuations and lingering health problems as well as a lawsuit against the Southern California Gas Co filed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016), shows that regulatory mechanisms are insufficient. Another recent article described the efforts of some “youth and environmental groups” who “recently sued the city, arguing that the Planning Department had been improperly “rubber-stamping” drilling applications and had required fewer protections for neighbors around drilling sites in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods than those in white areas” (“South L.A. residents want city to act on Jefferson Boulevard oil drilling site,” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2016). Oversight and community involvement continue to be vital in protecting the public health—especially of vulnerable communities.

This set of Policy Briefs speaks to the connections between chemical exposure and gender, and proposes policy changes in the interest of health and accessibility.