Silent Invaders

book coverI’ve been doing some research into women’s healthcare lately, and some of my best finds have been from old-school shopping the stacks at the library. Here are some (lightly organized) notes on the edited collection Silent Invaders: Pesticides, Livelihoods and Women’s Health. This text gives a nuanced history of conversations about pesticides and health, with a special focus on women’s health and much attention to a variety of contexts throughout the world. Many chapters reference the 1998 Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which are good places to start in understanding the regulation of pesticide use.

Marion Moses says the book’s focus is largely on toxicology and epidemiology, (as well as endocrine disruptors). She gives a useful history of the use of pesticides, with significant discussion of the process of resistance and secondary outbreaks. She references Carson’s Silent Spring as the first time the pesticide industry faced any significant criticsm. Further, she argues that “A ‘risk assessment’ ritual language emerged with predictable and stereotypical views” pointing to beliefs in objective science (p. 4). Contextual information like whether workers could afford protective clothing were largely ignored.

“The science of risk assessment has paid limited attention to gender and to social and political issues, and has largely ignored the different physiology of women, men and children. The threshold limit values for chemical exposure, for example, are often based on young, fit men. “ (p. 200)

“The exposure of women to pesticides is often grossly underestimated. Trainers, researchers and policymakers frequently assume that ‘men spray pesticides’, and women will be less exposed” (p. 10). Throughout the book, contributors show this is not the case. Many women work with pesticides, and even in cultures/countries where men traditionally do this work, women are still exposed through spray drift, during harvesting, and when washing clothing. Further, “Only 5 per cent of extension services have been addressed to women, and only 15 per cent of the worlds extension agents are women” (p. 11). Women are thoroughly othered in this discourse.

Gender methodologies are vital for research on pesticides and health. “Failure to ask the appropriate questions, and gather the appropriate tissues and biomarkers at the outset of the study, will lead to ambiguous and inconclusive results and conclusions” (p. 100). Unfortunately, “Relatively few epidemiological studies have been designed to address gender differences in the harm caused by chronic pesticide exposure” (p. 99) despite the fact that “There are major gender differences in the metabolism of pesticides and steroids” (p. 102).

The role of risk in these conversations is one that emerges in several chapters of this text, but most notably in Watt’s take on safety and policy. Watts draws parallels between gendered approaches to risk evaluation and the attitude of risk experts toward the public. “It is normal to refer to the assessment of risks by scientific experts, and the perception of risks by the public, the former term implying a degree of objectivity, rationality, and freedom from values, and the latter implying emotion, fear, irrationality, and ignorance” (p. 215). Watts shows that men tend to assess risks higher than men do, and this contributes to risk-averse behavior. Watts offers a variety of possible reasons for this, including: “women generally have less to lose socio-economically than men by challenging the status quo; that women are more inclined to be egalitarian and men to be technological enthusiasts [27, 28]; women to be risk-refusers and men to be risk-acceptors; and that women tend to be more vulnerable to chemicals than men” (p. 220).

Watts tells us: “Studies show that women are more likely to be risk-refusers, and prefer to avoid risk, whereas men tend to be more accepting. Whatever the reasons … the concern with avoiding risks is not recognized as legitimate by policymakers. Whereas policymakers, regulators and scientific experts indicated that they ‘assess’ risks, they believe that critics and the public ‘perceive’ risks, implying an irrational and emotional response. A risk assessor’s perception of risk aversion may lead them to ignore warning signs of chemical impacts” (p. 200).

Jacobs, Miriam, & Barbara Dinham. (2003). Silent Invaders: Pesticides, Livelihoods, and Women’s Health. London: Zed in Association with Pesticide Action Network UK.


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