The Daily Chemical Warfare on Black Women’s Bodies

I was introduced to uterine fibroids through a paternal aunt who had been diagnosed in her late 30s, after trying for some time to have a baby. She sent a mass family email to inform everyone that she would be taking action to get them removed, and hopefully restore her health so that she and her husband could try and conceive. The fibroids were removed, and she recovered just before she received another diagnosis of breast cancer.

She informed us that again she was going to be diligent in taking steps to rid her body of the disease by getting a mastectomy and then going through rounds of radiation. She eventually quit and opted to do high-dose Vitamin C treatment to detox from the radiation. In the process of going through these phases of disease, she had done a lot of research, which she would share weekly via email.

Unfortunately, her breast cancer turned to brain cancer, and I would never get a chance to have an in-depth conversation about what exactly my aunt found that could’ve led to all three of her diagnoses. As I became more aware of the maternal and paternal health consistencies, I found fibroids, hysterectomies, and cancer were the top three medical issues with women in my family. I strongly doubted that this was a coincidence.

Black women are often fighting for our lives in every aspect, especially regarding our health and wellness. Being a Black woman in America is one of the most beautiful experiences, but it also comes with many challenges. Statistically, Black women are more harshly impacted during birth and by maternal mortality than white women and women of other ethnic groups. Black women are also disproportionately affected by disease, including cancers, fibroids, asthma, and more. In addition, Black women are often subject to disparity in medical care, regardless of wealth or education status — either completely dismissed by healthcare practitioners or given menial care all around.

Like me, most Black women have a close relationship with someone who’s experienced infertility, uterine fibroids, breast cancer, miscarriages, and autoimmune disorders like lupus. Due to the close proximity of these experiences, Black women would not fully know the impact of such diseases in communities outside our own. As a result, we tend to believe that we are more predisposed to these conditions than white women or other ethnic groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, white women actually develop breast cancer at higher rates than Black women, are more likely to die of heart disease than we are, and have the lowest fertility rates throughout the United States.

It is commonly believed that diseases are passed down through genetics, however, research has continually shown that Black people’s conditions are caused by environment.

Most recently, tests found major endocrine disruptors from chemicals in hair products. The Silent Spring Institute, partnered with the Battelle Memorial Institute, selected 18 products and tested them in six categories including root stimulators, anti-frizz, hair lotions, hot oil treatments, relaxers, and leave-in conditioners; all products that are specifically marketed to Black women and children. These disruptors are vital to the destruction of the body because the endocrine system is a group of glands that produce hormones contributing to reproduction, sleep, mood, sexual function, as well as our entire body’s growth and development.

Using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry — a procedure that tests the purity of substances by separating and analyzing the compounds — the test included over 66 chemicals that were segmented into 10 separate chemical classes which included BPA (bisphenol A), parabens, fragrances, and seven others. The results found that each class of chemicals contained over 45 asthma-causing or endocrine disruptor chemicals including cyclosiloxanes, which cause liver and lung damage. They also contained nonylphenol, which interferes with the reproductive system, liver, and kidneys. Many of these chemicals are banned in other countries, but not the United States.

The high occurrence of breast cancer among Black women is not happenstance. Statistically, Black women are diagnosed at higher stages (Black women are typically diagnosed at stages 3 and 4) than any other women and have higher mortality rates. This also affects our salon professionals who are in constant contact with these products. Chemicals like parabens are found in human tumor tissue of the breast. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Black women’s exposure to such dangerous chemicals could occur in utero, or as infants, or toddlers. Yet a survey on products used by Black women noted that 84 percent of the chemicals found were not listed on the labels of the actual products. As a result of the hidden nature of chemicals not being labeled, California bill AB-708 was introduced to require manufacturers that have products for retail sale to list all chemicals on their website and provide that site on the product’s label.

Similarly, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2018 requires manufacturers to list all chemicals on all consumer and professional products. Both bills have yet to be enacted into law. Although this legislation is a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go in protecting Black women against the chemical warfare that is killing us daily.

It is imperative that we continue to educate ourselves and the community on the importance of using products that are free of toxic chemicals.

It is also essential to support Black-owned brands, which have continued to show care for the health of our bodies by using holistic products made specifically with us in mind. Former registered nurse Monique Rodriguez owns Mielle Organics and believes in looking at the body holistically when making her products. Her products include not only organic outer hair care with non-toxic ingredients, but also vitamin supplements for inner care. For many of us who have been exposed to harmful chemicals, detoxing our bodies by supplementing it with healthier healthcare can improve our overall medical welfare.

About the Author

Imani Bashir is a former sports broadcaster who, after years in media, decided to try her hand as an educator teaching literature abroad. She believes in raising her son as a global citizen and has lived in three countries (Poland — where her son was born — Egypt, and China). She discontinued teaching in a formal classroom setting and is a full-time consultant and writer, currently working on her first memoir about being a traveling first-time mother. Her bylines include The Washington Post, Glamour magazine, The Points Guy, and many more.