Today’s job hazards are affecting tomorrow’s babies. Evidence is accumulating that chemicals, gases and other hazards in the workplace are producing birth defects, stillbirths, miscarriages and other reproductive damage.
Some of this evidence was brought together recently in a report titled “Working For Your Life: A Woman’s Guide to Job Health Hazards” (available for $5 from the Labor Occupational Health Program, 2521 Charming Way, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley, Calif. 94720). LEAD, BENZINE, radiation, anesthetic gases, vinyl chloride and carbon disulfide are some of the deadly pollutants that can cripple newborn babies.
Both men and women can be transmission belts for the infliction of genetic damage on the unborn. But pregnant or fertile women are of greater risk due to chemicals crossing the placenta and reaching the fetus or chemicals reaching the infants in breast milk of exposed mothers.
Lead is associated with still births and miscarriages in exposed women and with sperm abnormalities in exposed men. Factory managers, recognizing this danger to women workers, are refusing employment to women or transferring them out of “high lead” areas unless they prove they can no longer bear children. In a few cases, women have sterilized themselves to keep their jobs.
SUCH CORPORATE employers think they are being responsible by such actions when they should be making the workplace safe from lead for all workers — male and female. Lead is harmful to both sexes.
With 36 million women workers in the economy, the numbers of women regularly exposed to hazards to themselves and to their future offspring are not small.
In the textile industry, nearly half a million women treat fabrics with the chemical TRIS that scientists believe may cause cancer.
More than 400,000 women work in beauty salons with hair dyes; many of these dyes are suspect as being cancerous.
More than 200,000 women in the electronics industry are exposed to numerous solvents that have toxic effects. One of these solvents, methylene chloride, has been found in mothers’ milk.
THE SERIOUS effects on children of the future by present workplaces as well as environmental pollution are the product of shortsighted corporate economics. Companies like Dupont, General Motors and Union Carbide are trading off lifetime agonies for the unborn for the preservation of a small fraction of their ample profits.
Of course these companies will dispute the effects of their chemicals or gases until it is too late for many human beings and until someone else does the necessary testing or research. It is not in the corporate tradition to be the first to test the effects of their job hazards on workers, just as it has not been the tradition to test the effects of their environmental pollution on people outside their plants.
A different lethargy plagues the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Only relatively few occupational health standards out of the hundreds needed have been issued by OSHA since its establishment in 1971.
POLITICAL PRESSURE under both the Nixon and Ford Administrations has weakened OSHA’s resolve. It is not surprising, then, that women’s work hazards are receiving the lowest priority.
The drive to enforce the occupational health laws must come from the potential or actual victims, given the sad state of our government. If more women can take leadership positions in unions — a long-time male preserve — they could bring more union negotiating muscle and more lobbying pressure on companies and government respectively.
For now, the above-mentioned report contains a mine of suggestions for women workers and their supporters who want to start doing something immediately about this silent epidemic at the workplace.