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OUR PLANETARY HEALTH: Research illustrates how climate change impacts men and women differently

Megan Tomlinson
Our individual health is directly impacted by our planetary health. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE

Megan Tomlinson

Special to the Record

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical compound used as a protective layer in hard plastics, metal food cans and paper receipts. As a hormone disruptor, BPA is believed to have harmful effects on the reproductive and endocrine systems, impacting fertility and increasing risks for hormonal cancers, such as breast cancer. A Canadian study demonstrated the ubiquity of BPA in 2013 by reporting on findings from the biological specimens of 2,000 women - 90 per cent had detectable levels of BPA!

Based on physiology, women are thought to be more susceptible to toxic pollutants. Differences between the male and female body are vast and include muscle mass, hormone regulation and adipose or fat tissue distribution. Thought of as ‘more complex,’ women’s health has often been overlooked and misunderstood.

Until recently, gender bias in medical research meant women were excluded from studies aimed at informing clinical decision-making. For example, the predominant lens for assessing and treating a myocardial infarction or heart attack was based on research data from middle-aged men. Important differences have emerged in the past few decades. In addition to the cardinal signs of a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, women might also experience sudden fatigue, nausea, or vomiting.

Gender-specific research is now illustrating how climate change impacts men and women differently. For example, physical hardships, such as displacement due to extreme weather events, position women in vulnerable situations. Poverty, intimate partner violence and sexual exploitation are all known to increase during times of crisis. Furthermore, Indigenous and racialized women are disproportionately impacted in contrast to their white female counterparts.

The evolving research on environmental pollution and the climate crisis can help to inform policy at a local, regional and national level. It may be surprising to learn that the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) has not been revised in over two decades. Our knowledge of the harms and health risks associated with environmental degradation has ballooned in 20 years.

Health professionals in the climate action space are pressuring the federal government to urgently reform CEPA. This would include the utilization of current research and the recognition of a healthy environment as a fundamental right for all citizens.

In addition to policy reform, a shift from the dominant narrative is needed. Women worldwide, particularly Indigenous women, remain far less visible in key leadership roles than their male counterparts. Many Indigenous nations regard women as the caretakers of nature and the backbone of strong communities. These voices must be amplified as we redirect from the current course of environmental destruction and towards a healthy and socially just future.

Women-led movements aimed at protecting the natural world are growing. Women are standing beside children and youth in demonstrations like Fridays for Future. On March 8, the Women’s Climate Strike will mark International Women’s Day by participating in a global demonstration of solidarity aimed at pressuring governments and business to expedite meaningful climate action.

Men, women, two-spirited, non-binary and transgendered people alike are impacted by the health of the ecosystem. We cannot have a healthy population of humans on a sick planet. We have gained pivotal insight into the biological and social harms brought on by living in disregard for the natural world. The more we pollute, whether it be in the form of BPA or greenhouse gases, the more the health of our human population will suffer. Individually and collectively, the time has come to mend our relationship with nature.

Megan Tomlinson, R.N., is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment