SHWI: Tell us about your organization Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE). How your organization was formed, your company mission, and your organization’s long-term goals.
In 1995, WVE’s founders created a new organization run by women, that recognized and uplifted the connections between gender, health, class, race, and the environment. Today, we lead tens of thousands of advocates across the country in campaigns to increase corporate accountability and transparency, enact health-protective laws, and take steps to reduce toxic exposure in their lives.
Our campaigns have historically focused on the industries that most heavily market and sell to women. We aim to rid the cleaning products industry of secret ingredients and unsafe chemicals, drive the period care and intimate care product marketplace toward safer products, and reduce toxic chemicals in salon and personal care products. Our work has resulted in monumental shifts in some of the largest consumer products companies in the world, and in policies that protect health.
Our mission is to drive action towards a future free from the impacts of toxic chemicals rooted in gender justice alongside those historically and presently ignored by the environmental health movement by leveraging an intersectional solidarity approach based on our expertise in research, advocacy and organizing.
As we continue to grow and deepen our work, we envision WVE as a community that is accessible, intersectional and empowering for LGBTQIA+ people, young people, Black people, Indigenous people, Latin@ people, Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander people, refugees, immigrants, people with disabilities, and working class people. We honor and recognize the intersectionality of these identities. And when we say disproportionately impacted people we are clear that we are talking about people at these intersections. We strive to put solidarity into action as we build this community.
SHWI: Here at SHWI and our sister company, Vaginal Biome Science (VBS), our focus is on vaginal biome health. WVE has done impressive work raising vaginal health awareness as it relates to product and company transparency. Can you share what initiatives has WVE taken towards making progress on this important topic?
We launched our “Detox the Box” campaign back in 2014, which was a first of its kind campaign to bring attention to toxic chemicals in period care and intimate care products. We aimed to bring more attention to vaginal and vulvar chemical exposure as a very unique and severely under-researched route of chemical exposure into the body. We also worked towards better ingredient disclosure – to promote better understanding and awareness of the chemicals included in products with vaginal and vulvar application. Our campaign focused both on demanding ingredient disclosure for period care products, as well as eliminating toxic chemicals disclosed in intimate care products, including intimate washes, wipes, sprays, powders and lubricants.
In 2015 we persuaded major manufacturers of period care products to disclose their ingredients voluntarily, followed by successful NY state legislation in 2019 requiring ingredient disclosure for period products on the label. We initiated chemical testing of period care products looking for harmful chemicals, testing which has been replicated and advanced by other organizations and government agencies around the world. Our intimate care product corporate campaigns have led to reformulation of numerous products, eliminating toxic preservatives, dyes and other chemicals from leading brands.
In collaboration with Black Women for Wellness (BWW) and numerous other organizations worldwide, we successfully convinced Johnson & Johnson to eliminate toxic talc from their baby powder products which have been linked to cancer. In 2021 and 2022, we hosted Vaginal Health Week, a week of education and events featuring experts on vaginal health and the harmful ingredients and messaging associated with intimate cleansing products, especially for women and girls of color. Our 2022 Vaginal Health Week highlighted collaborative research we conducted with Apothercare, Clip Labs and BWW in which we tested the potential adverse impacts of intimate care products on healthy vaginal Lactobacilli bacteria.
Throughout all of these activities, we have generated significantly more information about vaginal and vulvar chemical exposure than ever before, but there is still much more work to do. We hope to encourage continued research into how use of these products affect our health, to ensure safer and healthier products for all.
SHWI: What are some recent exciting milestones you’ve seen happen in the healthcare industry and how do you think this will continue to trend?
We are pleased to see, for example, that there is general consensus from gynecological associations and other medical authorities that vaginal douching is not good for one’s health.1 , 2 And we are seeing that there is greater awareness it the healthcare community that there are vaginal practices and products which can disrupt the delicate vaginal microbiome, leading to considerable impacts on reproductive health. This issue is however still largely under-researched.
We find there is greater attention to pharmaceutical treatments to “cure” vaginal infections and other conditions, despite the overwhelming statistics on frequent recurrence of these conditions just weeks or months after treatment. We are not seeing enough attention yet on the prevention of these conditions in the first place, particularly with respect to the role chemical exposures from products may be playing. We are encouraged by recent recommendations from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists that medical histories of patients include questions about vaginal products – both those for self treatment as well as hygiene practices.3 Healthcare providers need to be asking these questions of their patients, but they also need stronger guidance and understanding of the impacts of vaginally applied products. Recent research on chemical impacts on vaginal health is promising, and we hope will continue to be replicated.4,5,6
SHWI: What do you think is some of the most important work that needs to happen to support WVE’s vision of a toxic-free world?
There is still a tremendous amount of important work to be done to achieve our vision of a world free from the impacts of toxic chemicals. The work involves a significant reform of the chemical industry to ensure it no longer harms people, the environment or the climate. We need to work together towards this vision – which is why WVE has endorsed the Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals, which is a shared roadmap for accomplishing this transformation.7 Towards this end, WVE will continue to work towards greater right-to-know about chemical exposures, particularly highlighting disproportionately affected communities, and encouraging safer substitutions and solutions.
Specifically – a particular battle important to WVE is working towards full transparency of fragrance ingredients in products. So many toxic chemicals are hidden in “fragrance” which has long been protected by outdated trade secrets legislation. Vaginal and vulvar exposure to fragrance chemicals are of particular concern, due to the common inclusion of fragrance in products, and to the potential health impacts, from allergic skin reactions, to disruption of the microbiome to reproductive harm and more.