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Women’s Voices Resounding Through Science

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“We shouldn’t have to risk our lives to paint our toenails.” Cassidy Randall has a familiar way of talking that makes you feel as if you’ve always been friends. Her tone bespeaks more than her masters degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana. She holds the post of Program and Outreach Coordinator at the nonprofit environmental group Women’s Voices for the Earth. I asked her recently to explain how and why the WVE organization came about. Randall’s explanation, including her involvement, was more personal than I anticipated.

Randall explained how the idea came to WVE founder Bryony Schwan in the mid-1990s. Schwan was then a graduate student in U of M environmental studies, attending a meeting of a local environmental group. Schwan became frustrated that she and other educated women weren’t being taken seriously when they wanted to get involved.  Schwan perceived that women’s voices were not necessarily being heard, and that the movement was focusing more on topics like wildlife habitat preservation than on the places where humans are living every day. Schwan and others founded WVE in 1995, with a regional emphasis in Montana until 2005, when the organization broadened to a national scope. Schwan has since gone on to become Executive Director of the Biomimicry Institute, which explores how studying nature can help solve some of today’s global challenges. Erin Switalski now leads WVE as Executive Director.

A big part of WVE’s national profile has been organizing the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2004. Randall recites the statistics that seem overwhelming. More than 12,000 ingredients exist in make-up and other personal care products, yet less than 10-percent of them have been tested for safety. A typical woman might put 100 different ingredients on her body without knowing if they’re really safe.  Randall stresses that the government doesn’t even have authority to regulate what goes into the products that we use to bathe, primp or care for our children. The cause for concern: questionable ingredients suspected of causing cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive harm.

While cosmetics might sound like a niche women’s topic, Randall and WVE stress that personal care products, as well as cleaning products in the home, are a good place to start getting involved in the environmental movement. WVE considers our environment to be wherever we “live, work, eat, drink and play.” The group notes the science that shows, as Randall explains, “Women are impacted by toxic chemicals differently than men are.” And so, addressing what goes onto our bodies or into our lungs becomes even more sensitive an issue.

WVE launched the Safe Cleaning Products initiative in 2007, encouraging people to make their own cleaning products if they can’t purchase cleaners that clearly identify all ingredients. We used the WVE Green Cleaning party kit last fall when some friends helped the Flour Sack Mama blog experiment with simple cleaners. Today, WVE is calling for consumers to become conscious of what it calls “greenwashing” by the makers of some products. Randall says she’s hopeful that Simple Green will soon eliminate 2-butoxyethanol, an ingredient that environmental scientists consider toxic. WVE is also calling for safer products in hair and nail salons.

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How can we know that WVE’s information is relevant to our lives? WVE’s staff scientist, Alexandra Scranton, also has her masters degree in environmental science, plus work experience in epidemiology and statistics. She pores over study after study to keep up with the latest scientific findings. She cites independent, peer-reviewed scientific research to back up the organization’s work. If you visit the WVE site, you’ll find lots of details about the studies that seem to point out reasons for concern. Randall says that as consumers, we have an overwhelming burden to decide what’s safe to use and what’s not. She and WVE think it’s an unfair burden, when government and manufacturers should be doing more to ensure that products are safe.  WVE researchers find that other nations are often quicker than the US to provide consumer protections.

At WVE, the work is steeped in science in an effort to improve lives. The motivation behind this team of scientists and activists can be very personal. Randall shared with me that when she was a young adult she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a leading cause of infertility. Seven years ago, her grandmother died of breast cancer. Both of these diseases have suspected links to toxic chemical exposure. She wants other women to understand that whether or not we have a deep interest in environmentalism, the environment right where we live everyday is already affecting us one way or another. “Women are really the canaries in the coal mines when it comes to toxic chemicals.”

You can check out the science for yourself at this link.

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