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A Toxics-Free Future


Who Decides?

Charlotte Brody

Reflections on International Women’s Day

Years ago, I went to a public hearing in Washington DC about chemical exposures in the United States. The discussion centered on whether we should have stronger regulations to match the EU’s new REACH legislation. To the nodding heads of the government officials conducting the hearing, a chemical industry spokesperson explained that Europeans wanted REACH because they were now genetically risk adverse. He explained that the people who were willing to take risks had done so by migrating to the United States over the last two centuries. The result was a gene pool in the United States of courageous, independent people and a fearful, overly cautious set or relatives left behind. The hearing did not result in any recommendations to strengthen US chemical restrictions. 

Beyond the ahistorical idiocy of the chemical man’s claim (what about enslaved people? What about immigration policies?), the industry spin hid the real question --- a question that is at the heart in International Women’s Day: Who decides? Who decides when and if to marry and when and if to have children? Who decides how much lead is in paint on the windowsill the baby likes to look out from? Who decides how much of which cancer- or birth defect-causing chemical we are exposed to at work?  

The 4.7 trillion US dollar global chemical Industry is sure of the answer: They decide.  Their business plan, the analyses of the scientists in their pay, and the willingness of the politicians they support are blended into a comprehensive plan to maintain their role as masters of the chemical universe. They decide. It’s not a question of which continent’s people are risk takers. Instead, it’s the chemical industry insisting on deciding the risks for the rest of us.

Good chemicals policy takes decision making away from the chemical industry and puts it into the hands of people who try to balance building an economy and protecting public health. Good chemicals policy, like International Women’s Day, is based on the understanding powerfully expressed by Bhopal’s Rashida Bee: 

We are not expendable. We are not flowers to be offered at the altar of profit and power.

The roots of International Women’s Day are in the stories of women determined to end their victimhood. Of women insisting that their rights as human beings be recognized. Of women collectivizing their power to challenge the power of the men (and it really was mostly men) who had determined that they were expendable.

They were not. And we are not. The power and the profit of the chemical industry does not cede them the right to decide how much of which chemical carcinogen or reproductive or developmental toxin is deposited into the placentas of pregnant women and other people around the world. 

Happy International Women’s Day. Here’s to a future where the agency of all people is fully recognized, and we decide what risks we are willing to take. 


Charlotte Brody is an IPEN Executive Committee member and Vice President for Occupational and Environmental Health for the BlueGreen Alliance, a U.S. coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations working together to solve today’s environmental challenges in ways that create and maintain quality jobs and build a clean, thriving, and equitable economy.