Women's Health Matters

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Why Do Environmental Illnesses Affect Women More Than Men?

Environmental illnesses are significantly more common among women than men. Why? No one knows for sure but various factors may make women particularly vulnerable.

At Home
Women are more likely than men to clean and manage the home environment. This can expose women to a variety of toxic substances, in cleaning and laundry products, pesticides, foods and solvents.

At Work
While men are more likely to have an accident at work, women are more likely to develop occupational diseases. This may be because women are exposed to different occupational hazards (for example, when working in a hair or nail salon) or because certain female-dominated fields may not be as well regulated to protect workers from toxic exposures as some
male-dominated fields (such as the automotive industry).

Women are more likely to use cosmetic products, such as hair dye, make-up, perfumes and skin products, many of which contain potentially harmful chemicals.

Physiological Differences
Research has shown that in at least some situations, women react differently than men when exposed to the same toxic substances. For example, several studies have shown that when women and men are exposed to the same toxic substances in the workplace (in a building that causes Sick Building Syndrome, say), women consistently report having more symptoms.

A number of physiological differences might explain this. Because women have, on average, 10 percent more body fat than men, they are able to store more fat-soluble toxins. Women may be more vulnerable to toxic exposures because they have a lower body weight. Finally, hormonal differences may also affect the way a person’s body responds to chemicals.

Socioeconomic Differences
In North America, poverty rates are higher among women than men. A woman living in poverty is more likely to live in housing that exposes her to environmental toxins, such as asbestos, lead-based paint and mould. She may live in a neighbourhood located near contaminated soil, an air-polluting factory or a landfill site. She may have a job, as an esthetician, farmworker, cleaner or factory worker, for example, that exposes her to occupational hazards.

Living near or below the poverty line can also mean more stress, and can make it more difficult to exercise regularly, get a good night’s sleep, and eat nutrious foods, which, in turn, affect a person’s ability to cope with environmental illnesses.


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital