Kamini Kumari, an Auxillary Midwife Nurse, provides medical care to women at a rural health center.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment. Some rights reserved.

1. Outdoor air pollution is linked to preterm births

A study published in the journal Environment International found that of the 2.7 to 3.4 million global preterm births in 2010, 18% were associated with exposure to particulate matter air pollutants.

Cars, factories, fossil fuel production and even stoves emit particulate matter that pollutes the air we all breathe. Some countries, such as India and China, have extremely high levels of particulate matter in the air, which is linked to preterm births.

Eliminating the source of this pollution is key, since pregnant women, particularly in poor and vulnerable populations, cannot easily relocate to avoid air pollution. In developing countries, these sources include cookstoves that use biomass fuels (such as wood), transport exhaust and burning crop waste. SEI partners with UNEP’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition to support more than 20 countries in the Global South to reduce particulate air pollution from these sources.

Women working in a field.

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2.  Women carry a greater burden when air pollution leads to food insecurity

Ground-level ozone, an air pollutant also known as smog, is extremely toxic to plants, leading to crop losses worldwide. In the year 2000, ozone air pollution led to a 3.9 to 15% loss in global wheat production, significantly impacting food security. A study on ozone pollution indicates that in Europe in 2000 the economic loss due to ozone affecting 23 types of crop was 6.7 billion Euros. And that was 20 years ago.

When pollution leads to low harvests women often lose out. In India, for example, women bear the largest burden in times of food insecurity. They generally make less money than men, making them more vulnerable to increases in food prices; this can have a disproportionate impact in households led by women. Ozone concentrations are likely to increase in areas where the population is growing the fastest, meaning that global ozone and air pollution management plans are a necessity.

With this necessity in mind, SEI is developing methods for assessing air pollution risk that considers its socio-economic and gendered implications. It is important to research ways to mitigate crop losses and to create research practice that considers how those losses affect men and women differently.

3. Women are the first to get sick from water-related diseases

Water pollution has many sources, one of them being poor sanitation infrastructure. Water contaminated with raw sewage and bacteria from open defecation can transmit diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. In many countries, a disproportionate number of women work as cooks, cleaners and carers, likely making them more vulnerable to water-related diseases.

Furthermore, as nearby water sources become contaminated, women and girls are forced to walk longer distances to collect water. In addition to the physical burden, this steals time from activities they could be doing instead, such as studying, developing skills or improving their incomes. Thus, water pollution, and the way it affects women, can have an economic impact.

The SEI Initiative on Sustainable Sanitation offers a robust toolbox for improving sanitation systems, which includes technical solutions for cities and rural areas, as well as capacity building and policy support, to run sanitation systems effectively and sustainably.

For these reasons, and many more, it is important to invest in safely managed water and sanitation infrastructure and services. Strong and effective investment can not only save lives but also reduce poverty and contribute to prosperity.

However, while it’s crucial to upgrade and rethink our sanitation systems, it is just as important to challenge power dynamics and harmful gender norms that put women at a disadvantage. SEI’s Empowerment in WASH Index facilitates the development of sanitation infrastructures that better serve women’s needs and empower them to make decisions related to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Ananya Songsai sorts plastic in the garage of her suburban Bangkok home.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment. Some rights reserved.

4. Plastic pollution affects female health

Marine plastic pollution is increasing, affecting not only aquatic life, but also fisheries and the coastal communities that rely on them for their livelihood. In Asia, women living in these communities and working at small-scale fisheries are primarily involved in near-shore activities, such as catching shellfish or smaller fish, making and fixing nets, processing catch, and selling seafood at the market. They handle the plastic litter caught in nets – and that litter is full of additives and endocrine disruptors.

These additives, such as BPA, phthalates, vinyl chloride, styrene and acrylonitrile, can have adverse health effects. In particular, they can cause infertility, spontaneous abortions, adverse birth outcomes, and an increased risk of breast cancer. Thus, women handling plastic pollutants are at risk of exposure to chemicals and thus also at higher risk for health complications.

More research is needed to find a healthy and sustainable approach to plastics management. To learn more, read the Q&A with SEI’s Thazin Aung and Babette Resurrección, lead author of the UN Environment report, Marine Plastic Litter in East Asian Seas: Gender, Human Rights and Economic Dimensions .

Women await their turn for counseling on contraceptive options at a private DIMPA OB-GYN clinic.

Courtesy of Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment. Some rights reserved.

5. Chemical pollutants can hurt maternal health and contaminate breast milk

Pollution is not only a concern for the world’s poor. Women across all socio-economic levels on all continents are exposed to chemical pollutants. Improper storage and use of chemical fertilizers, for example, can contaminate air, food, soils and drinking water. Heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, are found in paints, waterway pollution, product waste, cleaning agents, and cosmetics. Many skin-lightening face creams – worn predominantly by women – contain mercurial ingredients that don’t show up on ingredient labels when below regulated limits. Mercury can cause brain damage and skin rashes, as well as harm the nervous system, kidneys, and unborn infants.

Women can be exposed to chemical pollutants in all different types of work environments, ranging from farming to healthcare and household work. And women exposed to chemical pollutants can pass chemical toxins to their children both prenatally and through breastmilk. Thus it is important to address and eliminate chemical pollutants wherever possible, to protect maternal health and the health of future generations.