Global HotSpots

Beyond Flint: Victimizing Women and Children

Environmental degradation takes a heavy toll on women and children’s health.

Credit: HTeam


  • Women, especially those who are pregnant, are susceptible to environmental threats.
  • The reproductive system of pregnant women is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants.
  • Toxic substances such as benzene, lead or methyl mercury can fatally damage the embryo.
  • The fight against environmental toxic substances is critical to achieve better health.
  • How can women raise awareness about environmental abuse that can lead to effective political action?

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its water source and started pulling water from a local river as a cost-saving measure. Soon afterwards, residents complained about the smelly and discolored fluid that was flowing into their households.

More than a year and half later, the residents are suffering the consequences of a water supply poisoned with high levels of lead and other chemical components that has resulted in a spike in Legionnaires’ disease and liver and kidney problems.

This happens as the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning that a high level of air pollution is killing millions of people around the globe.

Over the past several decades, demand for resources and industrial processes has been responsible for increasing levels of pollution and for the degradation of air, water, and land.

In addition to unrestricted exploitation of natural resources, unsound agricultural practices have had devastating effects on the environment and on people’s health and quality of life. Women and children have been primarily affected.

Women, especially those who are pregnant and/or living in rural or marginal suburban areas in developing countries, are particularly susceptible to environmental threats.

Danger to reproductive system

Until recently, women had few choices regarding their lifestyle and fewer opportunities to change unsatisfactory domestic or work conditions and improve their families’ and their own health.

Women are susceptible to health problems and hazards because of their roles as home-managers and economic providers and because of their role in reproduction. The reproductive system of pregnant women is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants.

Toxic substances in the environment can alter every step in the reproductive process. These toxic substances may increase the risk of abortion, birth defects, fetal growth retardation, and perinatal death.

The developing fetus is susceptible to environmental factors when the mother is exposed to toxic substances in the workplace. Furthermore, because fetal nutrition is entirely dependent on the mother, the factors that affect maternal nutrition and maternal health also affect the fetus.

For example, nutritional deficiencies in the mothers (such as lack of vitamins or minerals) can increase the proportion of low-birth babies, who are at greater risk of dying during infancy.

The exposure of pregnant women to physical and chemical contaminants can affect intrauterine development.

Damage to fetus

Although the placenta is an effective barrier against many substances, some toxic chemicals can pass through the placenta and enter the blood of the fetus, sometimes reaching higher concentrations than in the mother.

Some of these substances can even affect the fetus but not the mother. Fetal sensitivity to different substances varies with the gestational age.

In the first two weeks after conception, toxic substances such as benzene, lead or methyl mercury can fatally damage the embryo.

Exposure to toxic substances between the third and ninth week of pregnancy can lead to severe malformations of the fetal organs, which at this stage have begun to develop.

At least three percent of babies are born with birth defects, 10 to 15 percent of which are caused by exposure to environmental factors such as chemicals, radiation, viruses, and drugs.

The exposure of pregnant women to high doses of radiation can also have serious consequences for the fetus, particularly when the exposure occurs between the eighth and fifteenth week of pregnancy.

During this period, the cerebral cortex is developing and it is particularly vulnerable to such factors, which can cause severe mental retardation.

High-risk to children

Children are even more susceptible than adults to environmental contamination because they are in the process of development, and their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms have not reached their full potential.

As a result, toxic agents in food, air and water have a more serious effect. Children absorb more pesticides and reach a higher concentration of some toxic agents than adults.

Children also lack the experience and knowledge needed to recognize some situations as potentially harmful.

The quality of the environment will determine to a great extent whether a child will survive its first year of life and how well he will develop.

To show the importance of the quality of the environment during the child’s first months of life: In populations that live in a clean environment, free of toxic environmental influences, only one in 100 children dies before its first birthday.

Time to raise awareness

However, in poor communities lacking basic health services and where the community is easily exposed to harmful environmental factors, as many as one in every two children may die before the age of one.

The fight against environmental toxic substances is critical to achieve better health. Women in local organizations have first-hand knowledge of the effect of environmental degradation in their communities.

Through their work in their communities and with the media, women can provide practical examples of environmental abuse and help raise awareness that can lead to more effective political action.

Flint offers just a Peeping Tom view of a much more complex reality where hundreds, if not thousands, of towns and cities in the United States have an extremely old and inefficient water distribution infrastructure that has been slowly poisoning its inhabitants.

Now is the time for the citizens to unite against this abuse and for the protection of their lives.

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About César Chelala

César Chelala is a global health consultant and contributing editor for The Globalist. [New York, United States]

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