Last weekend, Black women celebrated Earth Day, in full recognition that our legacy is charged with preserving a livable planet for our children. That won’t be easy: the Environmental Protection Agency is being quickly dismantled, their budget slashed, and massive denial of climate change abounds. Essentially the fox is in charge of the hen house, with former CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson appointed as Secretary of State.
Our communities are stepping up in unique ways to save the earth by finding common ground with all people who will be on the front lines of environmental impact.
But as Black folks, our environments are already in peril. Beyond locales like Standing Rock and Flint, numerous other cities and towns across the country show unacceptable levels of lead and other pollutants; more often than not, such toxic sites are home to predominantly Black communities.
What’s less commonly known is that for people who live surrounded by environmental pollutants, the chemicals bear a uniquely negative impact on reproductive health. More than that — the personal care products we consume contain their own additional toxins. So while Black communities are all at risk of exposure, Black women and girls face particular hazards for our well-being.
So in addition to environmental risks arising from our environment, Black women also must be wary of the personal care and beauty products we use every day. You may have heard about how Black hair care products, particularly hair relaxers and detanglers, contain incredibly dangerous ingredients, leading to issues like early puberty, respiratory disorders, reproductive disorders, cancer and more.
Black women activists are doing the work to spread awareness about this. Yet these hair and beauty products are still available, ubiquitous and largely unregulated.
The beauty industry produced our first generation of millionaires in the African-American community, a generation that financed the civil rights movement and supported our dignity by providing rides and work to those on the front lines. Now our beauty professionals are those overexposed and underprotected from toxic chemicals contained in beauty products which have been directly, aggressively marketed for heavy consumption by a manufacturing class that is intent on making sure there are no guidelines, criteria or controls that regulate the chemicals within.
When Black women use or are exposed to these toxic beauty products, our bodies are first in line for exposure. This is absolutely an issue of health and wellness — but it’s also an environmental issue. Hairspray fumes fill our immediate airspace and then are released into the atmosphere; relaxers, detanglers, conditioners get thrown in the garbage and dumped in landfills (which, by the way, are more likely to be located near Black neighborhoods). What goes up must come down; after we purchase and use these products, they end up in the environment.
So while Black beauty products are a direct threat to Black bodies, their toxicity is an environmental issue for all people. What’s more, it’s not just Black-focused products that contain risks. Items as innocuous as pots and pans, fruits, body wash, sunscreen and toothpaste — which we actually associate with healthy living — can contain toxic ingredients that threaten the health of our bodies and our earth.
You wouldn’t necessarily know to watch out for these items, and you certainly wouldn’t associate them with one race, gender or class of people. They’re entirely mundane, from sofas to soda to take-out food containers to lipstick, and they all might carry risk of exposure to substances that have adverse health consequences. Broadly speaking, inexpensive products (canned tuna, artificially scented lotions) are more likely to come with unregulated or dangerous ingredients than their organic or natural counterparts. But it’s not always so clear-cut; risks can be unexpected. Even some baby formulas are made with an ingredient that can lead to diabetes, breast cancer, early puberty and other health issues. No matter your budget or cultural context, it’s important to read the ingredients of the products you buy, and familiarize yourself with what’s dangerous and what’s safe.
There are resources available to learn which products are free from toxic exposure. Black women and all people can start by leveraging the power of our dollar: only buy products that are “green,” or at least which avoid known carcinogens and other toxins. As long as we keep buying products that threaten our land, air and water, manufacturers will continue to churn them out, compromising the environment continuously.
However, we cannot shop our way out of this problem. The industry needs to be regulated by a government whose mission is to serve and protect people, not capitalism. Our representatives need to demand better regulation and labeling of toxic ingredients. The Environmental Protection Agencies, Food and Drug Administration and other watchdog administrations are necessary to create policy and monitor its adherence by chemical companies.
So let’s strive to be stewards not just of the environment, but of environmental justice, fighting to protect the earth and all of its people. Black women endured water cannons, vicious dog attacks, beatings and jail just as the Native American peoples have defending our planet and water at Standing Rock. Let’s, make a plan to become more active in saving her health too. Be more than an observer, speak up and take action. Take notes from Black women who continually change history and then take action.
Janette Robinson-Flint is the executive director of Black Women for Wellness.