A Fight for Sex Equality in Environmental Toxin Research

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Women’s health is at risk due to several systematic oversights by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s health guidelines concerning reproductive health research have not been updated since 1996. When the agency conducts reproductive health research, it does not equally address the way environmental toxins affect the reproductive health of both men and women over their lifetimes.

Anthropogenic chemicals including pesticides and solvents are present in ever-increasing levels, and have potentially severe implications for reproductive health. Research has found that human reproductive function has declined in relation to the 20th century’s increase in chemical production. Some of these environmental toxins are known endocrine disruptors and can cause an increased risk for heart attack, stroke and osteoporosis in women.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in particular have been found to interfere with the body’s natural hormonal processes. The negative health impact of EDCs on women also includes a host of reproductive issues from infertility to early puberty and menstrual problems.

A group of scientists is out to change the way the EPA conducts research.

The Oncofertility Consortium of Northwestern University met with the EPA in October to advocate for three key changes in the agency’s approaches. Program director Kate Timmerman explained that “the problem is current research assessing the risk of toxins on reproductive health is not being uniformly investigated in both sexes across the life span,” adding that “what happens now is if researchers don’t see an effect in males, they won’t look in females.”

This approach is fundamentally flawed, especially because certain environmental toxins can have a significant impact on females only. The necessity to change the EPA guidelines to address this shortcoming in policy is an example of how outdated governmental processes can steer research.

Here are the three ways the  Northwestern team urged the EPA to update its “Guidelines for Reproductive Toxicity Risk Assessment” to avoid misleading results:

1. The EPA must expand their definition of male and female health.

Currently, “reproduction” is defined as the biological process through which “offspring” are produced. The new definition of reproductive health must include the functioning of the male and female reproductive systems across the life span. Specifically for women, the EPA must not only consider a woman’s reproductive health during the childbearing years.

2. Address the well-established fact that reproductive toxicity may not be the same from species to species.

In other words–what’s bad for rats might not be harmful to pigs, and what’s toxic to rabbits might not be toxic to human females.

3. Maintain an understanding that there are key biological differences that exist between males and females.

While this seems extremely ‘obvious’, the current research guidelines don’t address this fact. Sex and gender are essential variables that can dramatically influences a person’s response to a given toxin. In fact, a report from the Government Accounting Office showed that the majority of drugs that are recalled showed greater health dangers for women than for men. Without a policy to examine findings in both men and women, errant conclusions will be made.


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