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Protecting Children from Environmental Toxins is Mother’s New Job
(May 2014) – Mothers take pride in protecting their children, but a recent study shows that job is becoming more complex. Because of increasing health risks from environmental chemicals, mothers are spending more time and resources trying to ensure their children’s safety and well-being, while class differences mean that not all mothers can do what they would like to protect their children.
The study, “More Work for Mother: Chemical Body Burdens as a Maternal Responsibility”
Recent reports from national health agencies in the United States and Canada have found hundreds of synthetic chemicals as part of the human body burden, including pesticides, lead, mercury, bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and brominated flame retardants (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2009; Health Canada 2010; Washburn 2013).
MacKendrick interviewed 25 women from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to explore how mothers and mothers-to-be practiced precautionary consumption to guard their child from environmental chemicals. Nearly all of the participants believed that precautionary consumption was primarily a mother’s responsibility, and these women felt deeply responsible for their children’s health. One respondent, a middle-class mother of three children commented on how her awareness of environmental chemicals developed while breastfeeding:
“You have a child and they’re perfect, then you start thinking when you’re nursing, ‘Everything I’m eating is going through to that perfect baby.’”
Mothers worried about exposing their children to pesticides, BPA, hormones in meat, and chemicals in cleaning products. Some were concerned that these compounds might contribute to early puberty and behavioral disorders in their children. Even women who didn’t have children described their bodies as vulnerable places for environmental chemicals that could one day affect their children. These women were especially concerned about the impact of chemicals on their fertility.
Most of the middle- and working-class mothers in the study wanted to be able to exercise some control via precautionary consumption. The low-income mothers in MacKendrick’
MacKendrick found that most of her middle-class participants downplayed the amount of time, money, and hassle required to do precautionary consumption. She reasons that women accept this extra work because more and more studies link children’s health problems to mother’s lifestyles and consumer choices.
Regardless of economic background, all of the women in the study believed precautionary consumption to be important to the overall health of their children, and practiced some form of it. MacKendrick points out that while precautionary consumption provides women with a sense of control over their children’s health, this approach also minimizes the responsibility of government regulators and chemical producers in the prevention of environmental toxins.
Source: MacKendrick, Norah. 2014. “More Work for Mother: Chemical Body Burdens as a Maternal Responsibility”
Contact: Norah MacKendrick, Sociologist and Assistant Professor, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, reach her at norah.mackendrick@
Interviews available upon request
Andrew Szasz, Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Cruz, Author of Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kate Cairns, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, "Feeding the organic child: Mothering through ethical consumption,”
Rachel Washburn, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Loyola Marymount University, Author of "Measuring Personal Chemical Exposures Through Biomonitoring:
Jennifer A. Reich, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado-Denver, Author of “Neoliberal Mothering and Vaccine Refusal: Imagined Gated Communities and the Privilege of Choice,” email@example.com
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