Women’s Health and the Environment

Women have a particular stake in environmental health research. Not only do they share many of the same diseases as men and children – in which the environment, along with genetic susceptibility, has an important role – but women also have particular environmental diseases related to their gender. Some, such as osteoporosis, involve aging as well, and women on average live longer than men.

Other diseases involve women’s role in reproduction and in the bearing and nursing of children. Women tend to carry more fat, in which substances introduced lower in the food chain may accumulate.

Women also greatly influence the health of their children. Studies indicate they can pass along substances – lead stored in their bone, for example – to their fetuses. Taking drugs, including prescription drugs and nonprescription drugs as common as aspirin, may affect a pregnancy. Smoking is linked to lower birth weight, douching to reduced fertility.

Here are some additional conditions in which an environmental factor is being studied as a possible cause, trigger or influence:

Breast Cancer

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) scientists co-discovered the first breast cancer gene, BRCA1, and played a role in the multi-national discovery of BRCA2. Together, these genes may account for much familial breast cancer, the kind that clusters in some families. The genes may be involved in 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer and a higher percentage of early breast cancers (affecting women under 45). A test has been devised to identify women carrying the defective BRCA1 gene.

In another attack on this multi-faceted disease, NIEHS is studying a growth factor called transforming growth factor alpha that responds to the female hormone estrogen and may play a role in normal breast development and could lead to new ways to detect breast cancer.

Grantees are studying the possible role of pesticides that may mimic some of the activity of estrogen. Institute scientists also collaborated on a study that showed that late first pregnancy and late menopause were associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, while women with four or more pregnancies had a significantly lower risk.

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