Video (55:22)
How does gender affect chemical exposure?

Chemical exposure: what has gender got to do with it?

Are you the one cleaning the house, using the most make-up, or using chemicals at work? Socially constructed norms and your biological sex matter for your exposure to hazardous chemicals – but how? And what does it mean for policymakers and consumers? – Lots of factors affect chemical exposure and we need to take all of them seriously in our strive for fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a non-toxic world, says FRAM researcher Julia Johansson.

The awareness of how gender impacts our lives are growing across academic disciplines. Risk assessment of chemical pollution and exposure should not be any exception. Who you are and what you do affects how much hazardous chemicals you are exposed to. The University of Gothenburg has a young researcher who wants to shed light on this fact.

Julia Johansson is a doctoral student at the Department of Law. She is also affiliated with the FRAM Center, which works for the safe use of chemicals. The gender issue is a central starting point in Julia's thesis project which deals with chemical risk governance of the EU.

Julia Johansson
The gender issue is a central theme in Julia Johanssons thesis project about the chemical risk governance of the EU.
Photo: GU

Gender and chemical risk management

–  I am interested in analyzing the mechanisms around managing chemical risks, and what bodies are allowed space within those mechanisms. The question I am asking is, what bodies, human as well as non-human, are given protection from chemical exposure? In extension, which bodily experiences are taken seriously, and which are neglected? What sort of agency are they given within the legal framework? A central theme in this is of course gender, since that is one of the ways in which society labels and differentiates among bodies, although far from the only relevant one, says Julia.

In order to bring in more perspectives on the issue of gender and chemicals to the FRAM community, Julia and her main supervisor Professor Lena Gipperth took the initiative to arrange a FRAM seminar on the topic of “Gender and chemical exposure”. 

– The aim of the seminar was to bring attention to the new IPEN/SAICM report on "Women, Chemicals and the SDGs." But also, to contribute to a widening of the discussion of chemical risk management. It is not only about toxicology. We need insights from a multiple of other disciplines to best tackle the issue. As was demonstrated during the seminar, lots of factors affect chemical exposure and we need to take all of them seriously in our strive for fulfilling the SDGs and a non-toxic world, says Julia. 

The report "Women, Chemicals and the SDGs" highlights the role of gender equality in achieving the sound management of chemicals, by showing the impact of hazardous chemicals on women as a vulnerable group as well as gender inequalities related to decision-making.

Read the new report, Women, Chemicals and the SDGs, on the IPEN website.

For Julia, the content of the report is well in line with her own interests. The goal with Julia’s research is to contribute to a wider understanding of chemical risk governance and how societal structures affect how chemical exposure culminates. She wants chemical risk management to become truly inclusive and non-toxic. Also, she thinks it is important to build bridges between different research fields.

– I want to lower the threshold for questions of chemical risk management within the legal discipline. The regulation of this area is often considered highly technical and complex, which should not be a reason to escape academic scrutiny.  

In the seminar, that was held on March 23rd, three guests were invited to speak on different aspects of gender and chemical exposure.

On the report "Women, chemicals and the SDGs" from the main author

The first speaker of the seminar, Sara Brosché, has a PhD in Environmental Science from the University of Gothenburg and now works as a science advisor to the International Pollutants Elimination Network, IPEN, a global network of non-profit public interest civil society organizations around the world. Sara is the lead author of the recently published report "Women, Chemicals and the SDGs".

Sara said in her presentation that women are more affected by exposure to chemicals than men but are underrepresented in governments and industries that make decisions about how hazardous chemicals should be manufactured and used. The report highlights the effects that toxic chemicals have on women around the world, while women are recognized as having a key role as important means of change at all levels of society.

– The report builds on looking at two different aspects relating to gender and biological sex. The first is gender-differentiated exposure. Socially constructed norms can contribute to if you're exposed to hazardous chemicals, and how much. Gender in many countries will define, or decide for you, what type of work you can do. It also matters if you can read and write, what level of education that you have, how much and which types of personal care products you use, if you use makeup, if yes - what type of makeup. If you do cleaning at home, you might be exposed to chemicals in cleaning products, said Sara.

The other aspect that the report builds on is that it must be sensitive not only to differences in sociocultural constructions of gender but also to differences in biology. Not only do women and men have different hormones, size and body fat, women’s biology also changes more than men during their lifetime.

Sara pointed out that the report is not only looking at these issues from a victim angle. Women are also leading the way to change.

–  Even though we see on the global scale that women have less access to decision-making, women are active on all levels to make a change, said Sara.

Watch Sara Brosché's presentation between 00:40 - 16:29 in the video.

Political economy and environmental justice

The second speaker was Dayna Nadine Scott, an Associate Professor and York Research Chair in Environmental Law and Justice in the Green Economy from the York University in Toronto, Canada. Her presentation was on the feminist political economy of pollution.

Dayna questioned the prevailing paradigm that ‘the dose makes the poison’. This idea is firmly embedded in several environmental laws, at least for whole categories of important chemicals.

In her speech, she wanted to focus on the broader theoretical influences that she believes should be shaping activism around chemicals. Dayna argued for a reorientation of analytics and ethics, building for the long run.

–  Emissions and exposures are not just trailing in the wake of extractive industries. They are actually built into those systems. To overcome those dynamics, we need to sharpen our analytics and expand our ethics as the IPEN report effectively demonstrates. The risks associated with toxic chemical exposures, even though they're pervasive and widespread, are also uneven in their distribution, said Dayna.

The theoretical foundation Dayna is developing is framed as a feminist political economy of pollution. In this conception, political economy is closely related to an environmental justice framework. It is questioning systemic issues of power and ownership. Who profits from, and has control over, ecological resources, economic capital, and social labour?

–  I think all of us on this panel share a will to expand our collective understanding of the links between social inequity environmental risks and the gendered division of health burdens, said Dayna.

Watch Dayna's presentation, between 19:40-36:15 in the video.

Who is responsible for safe consumption?

The third and final speaker was Norah MacKendrick, an Associate Professor of Sociology from the Rutgers University, USA. Her speech was about precautionary consumption.

Norah described that the term ‘precautionary consumption’ is developed in comparison to the precautionary principle. It has to do with the individual’s responsibility to safe consumption.

–  The precautionary principle is a policy ethic that prioritizes the protection of human health and the environment even if evidence of harm is inconclusive, said Norah.

Under the precautionary principle, the government has a responsibility to act ahead of full scientific certainty. This works in Sweden and Western Europe, but the situation is different in the USA and Canada, according to Norah.

–  We don't have the institutionalisation of the precautionary principle in our environmental policies laws and regulation. By default, we have what I call ‘precautionary consumption’. That means that each individual shopper must make their own precautionary decisions. It's up to the consumer to decide which soap he or she will buy, to read the label and to understand what that label means, said Norah.

Today, the responsibility for precautionary consumption is placed primarily on women, and especially mothers, as they are traditionally responsible for children and the home, concluded Norah.

Watch Norah's presentation, between 37:00-51:56 in the video.


Watch the full recorded FRAM seminar from 23 March (55:22 min).