The WRISK project regularly asks contributors to share their perspectives on a range of issues related to risk communication in pregnancy to further understanding of the challenges faced by scientists, clinicians, policy makers and of course women themselves when trying to navigate risk messaging. These represent individual and personal viewpoints, and are aimed at encouraging reflection and discussion, rather than reaching conclusions.

In our latest guest blog, Norah MacKendrick and Kate Cairns share findings from their research looking at the individualisation of environmental risks during pregnancy. While their work focuses on the US, there are parallels with how risk and risk mitigation is approached in the UK when it comes to environmental hazards. Recent UK media reports on studies looking at the impact of factors such as air pollution and plastics on pregnancies have included suggestions that pregnant women avoid main roads, time their pregnancies to avoid the most polluted times of year and try to limit their exposure to chemicals found in everyday personal care products like shampoo


Norah MacKendrick is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, in the United States. She is author of Better Safe than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics. She tweets at @nmackend.

Kate Cairns is Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden, in the United States. She is coauthor (with Josée Johnston) of Food and Femininity. She tweets at @katefcairns.


Early life exposure to environmental chemicals is associated with multiple health problems, including neurological and reproductive disorders. The earliest exposures happen in utero, leading pediatricians, obstetricians, public health specialists, policy makers and families to lobby for action to prevent babies from being born “pre-polluted.” Environmental threats to fetal, infant and child health are collective problems that require collective solutions. But in the absence of major, global regulatory change, the work of shielding children from environmental risks consistently falls to mothers.


In a paper recently published in Signs: The Journal of Women in Culture and Society, we analyse two decades of environmental health reports and advice from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a major environmental advocacy group in the United States to understand how mothers are positioned as uniquely capable of, and responsible for, managing children’s health.


We find that EWG blames environmental health threats on poor government regulation, but ultimately holds mothers responsible for addressing children’s exposure to these threats. In brochures, e-books, reports and websites, EWG and its subsidiary Healthy Child, Healthy World, link children’s exposure to toxic chemicals to the maternal body, to a mother’s lack of knowledge about toxic threats in her food and home—and, sometimes, to her selfish refusal to give up products that are harmful to fetal development.


In one report from 2006, for example, EWG tested blood and urine from mother-daughter pairs to make the case that pollution is inherited. The authors write of a “unique bond between a mother and daughter [that] starts in the womb and evolves over a lifetime” and refer to the “long-lasting influence of both the pollution inherited from mother to daughter, and the common exposures they share throughout each daughter’s childhood.” This same report warns that inherited pollution is passed down to grandchildren via female children whose ovaries develop in utero. Consequently, not only are mothers’ bodies deemed vectors of chemical transmission, but girls’ bodies are framed as risky by virtue of their future reproductive capacity. The message that girls, women and mothers are vectors of chemical risk coheres with a dominant paradigm known as the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD). Consistent with the DOHaD paradigm, EWG materials offer little consideration of the role of fathers’ bodies in transmitting toxic harm to children.


We find that the social construction of pollution in babies is not only gendered, but also classed and racialised. Healthy Child, Healthy World’s 2014 e-book Easy Steps to a Safer Pregnancy includes multiple photos of an exposed pregnant belly; we see this belly posed next to a bowl of salad, over a countertop laden with fresh vegetables, and cradled in the expectant mother’s hands. Notably, all of the exposed bellies feature white models, constructing the white maternal body as the environment of primary concern. We suspect this visual link to whiteness reflects EWG’s presumed audience: middle- to upper-middle-class white women, whose immediate environment—because of race and class privilege—is culturally coded as “clean” and “safe”. Indeed, in the United States, people of colour, indigenous, and low-income communities are far more likely to live near polluting factories, toxic waste dumps or pesticide drifts from conventional farms. EWG materials paint white, middle-class women as blissfully unaware that they (and their families) are at risk of exposure to pollution. This pollution, as EWG materials make clear, does not come from smoke stacks or toxic waste drums, but from mundane everyday objects, like conventional food, plastic packaging, car seats, computers, sunscreen and shampoo. Of course, these consumer-based exposures impact all people, especially those living in toxic communities, but it is the white affluent mother who is targeted here. EWG materials position this mother as an empowered consumer who can protect her child through careful lifestyle practices.


Finally, our analysis identifies the ambiguous place of maternal self-care within constructions of child well-being. While previous research has shown that public health campaigns adopt a message of “self-care” to promote the health of future babies, we identify instances where mothers’ relaxation strategies and beauty practices are deemed a threat to fetal health. One info-graphic entitled “When Looking Good is Bad for Baby” shows an illustration of a white woman sitting next to a dresser cluttered with cosmetics; through her tank top, we see the fetus curled up in the womb. A series of text boxes list the chemicals found in various personal care products and suggest strategies for chemical avoidance, such as “Upgrade your shampoo” or “Pass on perfume and scents.” The message is that only a selfish and beauty-obsessed mother (like the one in the image) would prioritise her own appearance over the well-being of her future child.


In writing this piece, we had to confront the tension between our support for the environmental health movement, which has worked for decades to improve environmental health conditions for all people, and our feminist and environmental justice-oriented lens. While we appreciate the effort to offer caregivers practical strategies to mitigate risk, we believe the environmental health movement can apply a more feminist perspective in its research and outreach. We urge movement groups to pull back on heavy-handed messages that paint mothers as unaware and self-interested, and recognise the burden of responsibility mothers already shoulder as they care for themselves and their children.


Ultimately, consumer responses to risk offer temporary, fleeting protection; bodies reflect the environments they are in. What’s needed are collective ways to address chemical body burdens without relying on narrow ideas of gender roles and risky reproductive bodies. The vectors of chemical pollution are not women or mothers but companies that manufacture and release environmental chemicals, and the governments that allow this to happen.