Non-Communicable Diseases: Chemicals Are a Key Factor

By Caterbow, Alexandra | Women & Environments International Magazine, Summer/Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Non-Communicable Diseases: Chemicals Are a Key Factor


Caterbow, Alexandra, Women & Environments International Magazine


Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise. Most probably you have a friend or family mem-ber suffering from cancer, diabetes or respiratory diseases. So, in a way NCDs have become a sad part of the human experience that we share globally. Yet, the question is: do we have to accept that they are here to stay?

A few facts of NCDs: They are the leading cause of death worldwide, causing an estimated 36 million deaths annually, with 80 per cent of them in develop-ing countries. NCDs cause 60 per cent of all deaths worldwide and 18 out of 35 million annual deaths related to NCDs are of women (WHO, 2005). NCDs are the biggest threat to women's health globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 1.7 million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, which is a 26 per cent in-crease from current levels. In 2010, 143 million wom-en were diagnosed with diabetes, and by 2030 this number is expected to rise to 222 million (NCD Alli-ance, 2011).

In the public debate and among health experts, lifestyle, tobacco smoke and nutrition are already in focus as causes of NCD's. In relation, environmental determinants like air and water pollution, exposure to hazardous chemicals and pesticides are by far not addressed sufficiently. This is surprising, as many hazardous chemicals are ubiquitous and linked to many NCDs. They are in products we use, in food we eat and in the air we breathe. Some of them are bio-cumulative or have negative effects even at low levels.

A World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Asturias, Spain in 2010 agreed for the first time to put environmental and occupational factors in the primary prevention of cancer on the agenda. The WHO Asturias Declaration (2011) states "Prevention of the environmental and occupational exposures that cause cancer must be an integral component of cancer control worldwide". However, the new 2017 WHO NCD progress monitor report does not include progress monitoring indicators related to chemicals (WHO, 2017). This is a missed opportunity, since much more needs to be done to tackle NCDs at the level of primary prevention. Exposure to hazardous chemicals and pesticides has to be reduced by phasing them out, implementing safe alternatives and raising the awareness of the public, health professionals and policy makers.

The Case of ASGM and Mercury

Take the example of Artisanal Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM), where mercury is being used. In many ASGM areas not only miners, who are main-ly men, are exposed to mercury. Women are highly affected too, because often they perform the most toxic jobs, since these jobs do not require as much strength. Instead, these jobs include pouring the mercury into the ball-mills or mixing the mercury in panning, and burning the amalgam, often with their children or babies nearby. Women are also highly susceptible to harmful chemicals' effects and can pass on the toxic chemicals to their babies before birth and in breast milk. Mercury vapor released during amalgam decomposition poses a serious hazard to women and others in close proximity to gold shops and amalgam decomposition. Women working with tailings may simultaneously be ex-posed to multiple pollutants such as cyanide, mer-cury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. In most cases, miners and women working in ASGM are not aware of the health risks related to the use of mer-cury.

Mercury is very harmful, as it is toxic for the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the liver and the kidneys. …

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