#FWOTM: Erin Switalski, Rallying Women’s Voices for the Earth & for Themselves

Erin SwitalskiOut of an estimated 85,000 chemicals currently in use in the environment in the United States, only about 200 have been tested for safety. Of those chemicals that have been tested, most have been evaluated only for their acute impacts to adult males in industrial settings. The chemical exposure routes and health impacts on women – especially girls, women of color and women of reproductive age – are different and have historically been largely overlooked. This month’s Fierce Woman, Erin Switalski, is Executive Director of Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), and the driving force behind a growing grassroots political movement that demands total transparency from corporations .

WVE brings women together, educating them about the harmful chemicals in our environment and their affects on our bodies, while creating avenues of resistance together. Not only does the organization educate women, but they also conduct their own studies of products to act as an independent purveyor and then organize efforts to enact change. Women are possibly the most important stakeholder when it comes to consumer products, seeing as they are largely in charge of purchasing household and hygiene products for themselves and family members. Women hold the key to community health in their hands and WVE has allowed them to focus these efforts in several key areas: removing chemicals from tampons and pads, monitoring the safety of chemicals used in nail salons for workers and customers, keeping synthetic, toxic chemicals out of fragrances and related products (like scented tampons), and more.

As Exectuive Director, Erin is responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the national Safe Cleaning Products Initiative, which has garnered international media attention and moved major corporations to make unprecedented policy changes, resulting in the introduction of federal legislation that, when passed, will reduce women’s exposure to cleaning product chemicals. She has also successfully led statewide initiatives to reduce women’s exposure to toxic chemicals in Montana, including the introduction of comprehensive legislation to ban the sale of mercury products.

Under her leadership, last October, WVE led another successful campaign with over 35,000 supporters called #DetoxtheBox. At one of their demonstrations during a shareholder meeting in front of the Proctor & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, participants demanded that the Always and Tampax manufacturer disclose all the ingredients used in creating their pads and tampons. While the FDA monitors usage of certain chemicals known to have dangerous side effects, manufacturers aren’t required to report all the raw chemical ingredients used since technically, tampons and pads are classified as medical devices. P&G is the largest manufacturers of feminine products, with 44% of the United States market share, making this an example for others in the industry; women are paying attention and speaking out.

Since research has established links between artificial fragrance additives and the dioxins found in feminine hygiene products to health issues like cervical cancer, allergies, and Toxic Shock Syndrome, women’s health advocates have rallied together to raise awareness about the health hazards, but education goes only so far. For example, WVE put P&G’s Always feminine pads to the test and found the napkins produced chemicals such as chloroform, styrene and chloroethane. Styrene was classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization while the Environmental Protection Agency found short-term contact to high levels of chloromethane can develop neurological side effects and lack of muscle coordination as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While all the levels found in the products were deemed acceptable by federal guidelines, the presence still comes with much concern. Such practical demonstrations and grassroots evidence are precursors for necessary change, both on behalf of the company but also on the part of consumers.

As one of WVE’s premiere business partners and as makers of a soft, safe and natural feminine hygiene products, we understand that voting with your wallet and using social media to demand information have become the new forms of peaceful protest. The first step to transforming policy and advertising in regards to health products is creating the demand and drive for it, and that is what WVE did so beautifully. The organization’s campaign video, a spoof on Justin Timberlake’s Dick-in-a-Box, went viral before the protest giving it the numbers it needed and nation-wide support. Activists (and other Maxim Hygiene FWOTM) Kiran Gandhi wrote letters to the CEO and showed up at a shareholder meeting. Within days, The New York Times reported that both companies began publicly declaring previously non-disclosed product ingredients on their websites and Twitter pages.

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Under Erin’s guidance, WVE has become a model for other activist organizations in the space. We got the chance to delve a little deeper inside Erin’s strategy for success in an exclusive interview; read below for her words of wisdom and for ways to get involved check out their website, www.womensvoices.org, which is chock-full of great tips, DIY recipes, videos, and some excellent in-depth scientific reports.

What challenges do you face, every day and on a larger level, in challenging corporations to test and regulate their products? 

I think that individuals who work at the companies feel very confident that they are making good products and they trust the testing that their company does. They believe in the products they sell. So, I think they can take it personally, like we are attacking their beliefs. But once we start a real dialogue and they realize that maybe they haven’t asked the questions we are asking, or thought about a health impact in a particular way, we see their guards go down and a willingness to listen and work together open up. The trick is to continue to balance the public pressure needed to keep that dialogue moving forward, without offending the company so that they decide to stop talking with us.  

In your own words, why do you focus on women’s health issues or the effects of such products on women?

I find it frustrating that historically the bulk of the research on the impacts of chemicals on health was tested on adult males. The findings just assumed the same would be true for women, completely discounting that we have very different reproductive systems. And as the sex that bears children, the way women are impacted has much larger implications for society. We are addressing entire generations of people by working to make sure that products are safe for women. And women tend to care about this issue and want to fix it.

How do you think the current and future political climate will affect regulations pertaining to chemical product corporations?

I am really concerned about how women’s health will fare in the current political climate. Congress passed a bill to update the nation’s chemical management law this year, a law that hadn’t been updated since 1976. It wasn’t the best bill ever, but it does give the Environmental Protection Agency more power to require safety testing of chemicals. If the EPA is gutted, it won’t be implemented. We have also been working on new regulations that would ensure safety testing of personal care products before they go to market, but again, it will require resources from the FDA to implement, and I fear that any program – even one that is supported by Republicans and Democrats alike –will drown in the name of stopping all new regulations. I think we are going to see more state-level regulation, in California and others states where the political climate is more open to regulation. The states must lead the way now.

WVE is one of our exclusive non-profit partners for our #FierceWomenFunded campaign, which donates a percentage of our online sales each month to non-profits that are committed to empowering women. Along with encouraging donations to WVE year round via some of our other #fiercewomen features, we will be working extra hard this month to donate a larger portion of our online sales to your organization. Please explain how you intend to use the funds raised and how our readers can help WVE!

Now, more than ever, women’s voices need to be heard loud and clear. This year alone, we have increased our reach significantly, reaching millions of women with information and ways to take action. With your support, we will continue to grow this reach and engage millions of more women in calling on companies and lawmakers for safer products. One thing we are particularly excited about is organizing a women’s health rally in DC for safer feminine care products. Sign up to get our newsletter on our website and you can learn more about it or attend in person!

It’s so ironic that the last #FierceWomenFunded feature of the year ends with Erin and Women’s Voices of the Earth since our goal for 2016 that we set almost one year ago today was “exercising your feminine voice.” As we’ll discuss in more detail in our next and last post of the year, we can’t think of a year in our nine years of serving women’s health for which we heard your voices more loud and clear than we did in 2016. Thank you for flexing those muscles so bravely.

We invite you to flex them one last time in support of the voices that serve your health at WVE with  your next purchase of Maxim Hygiene organic and natural personal care products at our online store. Just enter the following coupon code at check out and you’ll get 10% off* your next order and we’ll donate 10% of the sale to Women’s Voices for the Earth: FWERIN

*This offer is valid now through December 31st, 2016 at www.maximhy.com only. This offer that can not be combined with any other offers, is not valid on shipping charges, not applicable to prior or pending orders and no adjustments can be made on previous purchases. Other restrictions may apply. Feel free to use the discount as many times as you like through the end of the year so that every purchase you make to feel better about your personal care can help make a difference in someone else’s health as well!

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