Editor’s Note: Last month the New Leaders Council named this year’s “40 under 40” — a group exemplifying “the spirit of political entrepreneurship.” We thought you might like to learn a bit about the winners, in their own words. Today’s piece comes from Erin Switalski, Executive Director of Women’s Voices for the Earth — a group working to “eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women’s health by changing consumer behaviors, corporate practices and government policies.”
As a kid, I thought I would be a fighter pilot when I grew up. Of course, I had no idea what that meant. I just knew that it was honorable, and I wanted a job that made me feel good. And perhaps a dreamy Val Kilmer as “Iceman” in Top Gun played a role in that fantasy, too. While my life took me on a different path, sometimes I do feel like a fighter pilot. I have a mission, and I never know if I will succeed or fail. But I go out anyway, hoping that whatever I do leads to a safer, better world. As I reflect back, I think of the many missions I have been on in my life and highlight just a couple here.
In 2003, I had the opportunity to take part in a human rights delegation to Colombia. The U.S. was pouring millions of dollars into failed policies as part of the “war on drugs.” While in Colombia, I met individuals who were directly affected by policies paid for with U.S. tax dollars — farmers who lost all of their crops and whose health was jeopardized when their fields were sprayed with glyphosate (Round Up, manufactured by U.S.-based Monsanto); Union leaders who were arrested and whose lives were at risk for organizing for basic human rights; Mothers whose sons were kidnapped, killed, or recruited to war. It became clear to me that the “war on drugs” was a war for resources — for Colombia’s gold, oil, copper, emeralds, and precious water. Caught in the middle were Colombia’s poor: farmers, afro-Colombians and indigenous people who had the unfortunate fate of living on resource-rich land, and many civilians caught in the crossfire between feuding rebel groups, the Colombian military, and the outlawed, state-supported Colombian death squads. What I heard and saw left an impression on me that won’t ever fade, and it’s shaped how I think about the world today.
My current focus lies at the intersection of women’s rights and environmental health, where I work to expose the ugly truths about the chemical industry in the U.S., and in particular, why this matters to women. Most people have no idea that the products they use on a daily basis like lotion, a plastic cup, or cleaning supplies are made up of chemicals that have undergone very little regulation to ensure they are actually safe for us to use. Instead, the U.S. public has become the testing ground. This portends particularly scary for women, who carry the impacts of toxic chemical exposure differently than men. Many chemicals accumulate in fat and women generally have a higher percentage of fat tissue than men. For example, in 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that women, as compared to men, had significantly higher levels of 10 of the 116 toxic chemicals they tested. Three of the 10 chemicals were phthalates — a group of chemicals found commonly in health and beauty products — that are linked to birth defects. Women are also the first environments for the next generation. Many chemicals stored in a woman’s body are passed onto her child during pregnancy and later through breast-feeding. A 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group revealed that at least 287 hazardous industrial chemicals pass through the placenta to the fetus.
In addition, the research done on chemical exposure has historically been done on males in industrial settings, meaning that the conclusions of those studies only accurately apply to 50 percent of the population. With health problems on the rise, we can no longer ignore the role that toxic chemicals play in our ability to live healthy lives. The current law in the U.S. that manages chemicals was enacted in 1976 and made sweeping concessions to the chemical industry by calling any chemical already in use — an estimated 62,000 chemicals — safe. It’s high time for new chemical management policies in the U.S. They must protect all people, including the workers who make these products, the communities that live near manufacturing plants, and women who greatly bear a toxic chemical burden, from reckless use of chemicals.
While these two experiences may seem distant, the connections are clear. Turns out that many of the patterns I saw in Colombia — corporate greed, government inaction, environmental destruction, blatant disregard for health concerns — thrive in the U.S. too. The only way to achieve a sustainable world is for all of us to band together and demand environmental protection and human rights for all. My wish today is for everyone reading this to find your own mission and to go for it. To learn more about the conflict in Colombia, visit www.witnessforpeace.org. To learn more about toxic chemicals and women’s health, visit: www.womenandenvironment.org. Know that while you may feel irrelevant sometimes, each voice matters. The more voices, the more noise, the more success. Raise your voice today.
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photo credit: Women's Voices for the Earth
By Erin Switalski