According to the World Health Organization, 23% of deaths and 25% of chronic diseases are due to environmental factors. Among them, we find biological exposure to a virus, the psychological context, but also several pollutants such as pesticides, food additives or endocrine disruptors. And exposure to these contaminants varies according to our age, where we live, our lifestyle, our profession… and our gender. This is the theme of a conference organized this week by the Foundation for Medical Research, while the consideration of sex in the occurrence or development of diseases has long been shunned by researchers.
First of all, women and men have metabolic differences leading to different absorption of pollutants. The first hold a higher fat mass in proportion. Since many pollutants are stored in fatty tissue, women are more exposed to them. The sex hormone system also differs between the two genders. “Most endocrine disruptors, by mimicking estrogen, increase the risk of breast cancer or can disrupt the development of girls in utero”, explains Robert Barouki, director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research. (Inserm),
Women’s social and professional conditions exposing them to pollutants
But the differences are not just biological. They are also socio-economic. Women constitute the majority of people in precarious situations. They represent, for example, 70% of the working poor in France. And we know that people in precarious situations are more exposed to certain pollutants, in particular food and air (due to less suitable housing).
In addition, certain occupations such as cashiers, hairdressers and cleaners are more often female; 90% of cashiers are female, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee). And there are seven out of ten women among cleaners.
These two professions are particularly exposed to pollutants. The cashiers, for example, handle the tickets on which there is bisphenol A, which has now been replaced. “These bisphenols have been classified as endocrine disruptors at risk, because they bind to the natural estrogen receptor and mimic their effect”, underlines Véronique Maguer-Satta, research director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
“To say that women are more affected is a bit hasty”
“To say that women are more affected by pollutants than men is a bit hasty,” however qualifies Robert Barouki. Depending on the type of pollutant, the impact may be greater for one of the two genera or for the other. Overrepresented in certain sectors, such as construction, men are exposed to more chemicals such as asbestos.
And that’s not all. “A field study carried out in Occitania shows that exposure to a mixture of pesticides has greater metabolic repercussions in men than in women”, adds Hervé Guillou, research director at the National Research Institute for agriculture, food and the environment (Inrae).
However, beyond work, women are more exposed to contaminants once they return home. They devote an average of 3h26 per day to domestic tasks, such as cleaning or shopping, compared to two hours for the opposite sex. They are therefore more exposed to harmful substances contained in household products.
“50% of cases of endometriosis have an environmental origin”
In addition, certain pathologies, exclusively or predominantly female, also have environmental causes, which remain to be determined. This concerns “50% of cases of endometriosis “says Marina Kvaskoff, researcher at Inserm. She is particularly interested in the role played by diet, while other recent studies show a link between endometriosis and exposure to pesticides or dioxins. Regarding breast cancer, Véronique Maguer-Satta is leading a vast study on the impact of bisphenols and plastic nanoparticles on the mammary glands. “We are at the very beginning of the research. »
While waiting for the results, Véronique Maguer-Satta calls for not placing the responsibility on individuals. “Of course it’s better to eat organic to avoid exposure to pesticides, but what is needed above all is that individuals put pressure on governments”, enjoins Robert Barouki. And there is work. Latest example: bisphenol A, classified as an endocrine disruptor, has been replaced by bisphenol S. An equally controversial chemical substance.