Vorhees on why pollution risks worse for developing world women
Standing ankle deep in black oil in a green field in Nigeria, Donna Vorhees was startled not by the pollutant inching up her boots, but by the two barefoot women inching past her.
"They were harvesting cassava root even though they were surrounded by oil puddles," says Vorhees, a Boston-based environmental scientist who spent part of 2011 studying the effects of poorly regulated oil drilling on Ogoniland, Nigeria. "Life here continued as if the drilling had never happened. But in an industrialized country, the area would have been evacuated and there would be no one left to work the fields."
Vorhees' experience illustrates the challenges that health advocates face as they work to protect women and families in the developing world from problems related to pollution. These ailments are more common in low-income countries where environmental protections are more lax.
Even so, women's advocates say that in the past five years, developing countries have made stronger efforts to literally clean up their act. International agencies are also stepping in, as the United Nations did by funding Vorhees' study, which recommended "emergency action" to help some Nigerian families who were drinking oil-slicked water contaminated with 900 times the accepted level of the carcinogen benzene.
Health experts say that women in the developing world (like women everywhere) have a special set of vulnerabilities to environmental contaminants because their bodies are more sensitive to pollutants that can cause allergies, immune disorders and reproductive and neurological problems triggered by exposure to some synthetic chemicals.