The polluted child and maternal responsibility in the US environmental health movement

Norah Mackendrick, Kate Cairns

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

2 Scopus citations


Early exposure to environmental chemicals is associated with multiple health problems, including neurological and reproductive disorders. In response to this problem, the environmental health movement has emerged as a leading authority on strategies of self-protection, or what we call "precautionary consumption." In this essay, we use discourse analysis to examine two decades of environmental health reports and advice from a key organization in the United States: the Environmental Working Group (EWG). During this period, the discourse of environmental health used by this organization presents babies as contaminated before birth and mothers as vectors of chemical risk. This discourse locates risk within three primary sources: first, inadequate regulation of environmental chemicals; second, maternal environments of the body and home; and finally, maternal desires for food and beauty. We argue that EWG strategically mobilizes existing medical and scientific discourses surrounding maternal bodies to build greater support for chemical regulation. Key to this discursive construction is a differential attribution of blame and responsibility, where blame for pollution is assigned to regulatory failure, yet responsibility for mediating children’s exposure is assigned to individual mothers. This social construction of pollution as a mother’s problem is not only gendered but also classed and racialized and warrants greater attention in feminist research. Our analysis also contributes to scholarship on the maternal-fetal conflict by tracing the ambiguous place of maternal self-care within constructions of child well-being, and it advances research on the regulation of women’s bodies and actions throughout their reproductive lives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)308-332
Number of pages25
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Gender Studies

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