When environmental toxicologist Qamar Rahman, Ph.D., D.Sc., came to NIEHS in 2015, her seminar revealed the plight that poor women around the world, particularly in her native India, experience when it came to environmental exposures and disease.
Her 2018 presentation, "Issues Related to Environmental Exposure of Women," expanded on her work with this vulnerable population. Rahman spoke during the NIEHS Office of the Director seminar April 20.
When thinking back to Rahman’s last visit, NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., said the photos that she brought were seared in her memory.
"In one of her slides, several women wearing lovely saris were completely covered in asbestos," Birnbaum said. "Those kinds of occupational exposures don’t happen much in the U.S. anymore, but they still occur in India."
When the job makes you sick
Rahman said that India has 100 asbestos-based factories that employ 300,000 workers. Although male workers are mainly involved in mining the mineral, Rahman said female workers are often responsible for milling and processing, which subjects them to extremely high concentrations of asbestos. As a result, the women develop a severe lung scarring condition known as asbestosis in less than five years, and eventually mesothelioma or lung cancer.
As devastating as asbestos is on human health, several other occupational hazards pose a serious threat for women. Without protective equipment, they breathe in silica dust from mining gold, lead, zinc, copper, iron, and coal. The respiratory condition known as silicosis soon follows.
Women who make bricks, fireworks, and cigarettes, or who work in agriculture may experience a range of health issues, such as joint and musculoskeletal diseases, gynecological problems, fungal infections, and ailments of the ear, nose, and throat. Although these occupational exposures impose a grim toll on these women, the children who must accompany them to work suffer, too.
India and other developing nations are undergoing a period of unprecedented economic growth, according to Rahman, but this acceleration is leading to a decline in water and air quality. She said that a recent study published in a leading Indian publication reported that 19 percent of Indians drink water with more than 100 micrograms per liter of arsenic. This amount is ten times greater than the World Health Organization’s provisional guideline value of 10 micrograms per liter.
Rahman explained that most of the outdoor air pollution comes from factories, crop burnings, and traffic, but the largest global source of indoor pollution comes from cooking and heating with solid fuels, including dung, wood, agricultural residues, and coal.
"Every year, 2.8 million people, with 1.3 million in India, die due to biomass fuel," Rahman said (see related story). "Pollution-related illnesses, such as asthma and other pulmonary diseases, coronary artery disease, endocrine system disorders, cancer, and congenital diseases, are responsible for 9 million deaths worldwide."
Changing for the better
Rahman said one of the ways she can help is to create a Center for Environmental Impact on Women’s Health. The new center will organize medical camps, educate women on environmental impacts, develop an academic course on "Environment and Health: Capacity Building for Decision Making," and design an educational certificate program in environmental health.
She hopes to acquire funding for the center from the Indian government and international organizations.
"Each one of us can make a difference, and together we can bring change," Rahman said as she ended her presentation. "May the coming era bring new hopes and give voice to their silent sufferings."