Liberal biopolitics of environmental health: contamination, risk, and race at the EPA

Becky Mansfield
Ohio State University

This paper is about neoliberalization of environmental health, focusing on the gendered and racialized production of knowledge and management of toxic environments. More specifically, I examine how US agencies (especially the EPA and FDA) have come to understand and govern the problem of health effects from methylmercury contamination in fish. Fish consumption is the main source of exposure to methylmercury, and the central concern regarding such exposure is the effect on neurodevelopment of fetuses and very young children. During this time, the agencies have adopted risk as the dominant calculative framework, and have turned to fish consumption advisories-aimed at individual childbearing women-as the dominant technology of environmental health control. Elsewhere I have argued that these advisories, and the risk strategies that support them, are an example of neoliberal governance; they calculate population-level effects while devolving responsibility for environmental and public health problems to individuals, all of which thereby legitimizes deregulation (letting polluters and regulators “off the hook”). My analytical focus, however, is the broader work that these neoliberal, risk-based advisories do, particularly in terms of production of knowledge regarding environment-body relationships, responsibility, and good citizens. Elsewhere I have argued that advisories enact a gendered biopolitics, in which it becomes the responsibility of “good mothers” not only to protect their own children from environmental health threats, but thereby to secure the population. Women’s bodily “choices” become the threshold between the contaminated environment and the fetus, which represents the future.

This paper will focus on the racial dimensions of this liberal governance regime. Attending to the specific ways that the EPA and FDA came to understand the problem of methylmercury contamination, especially in the 1990s, the paper shows that agency actions appear contradictory: at different times identifying racial disparities in methylmercury exposure via differences in fish consumption, ignoring race but thereby normalizing white diets, and being racially inclusive through carefully communicated (yet race-neutral) consumption advisories. What I show is that because of racial variation in fish consumption, it is women of color who are more impacted by supposedly race-neutral advisories: it is they who are told to change their diets. Further, by normalizing the white diet, this biopolitics of fetal neurodevelopment problematizes methylmercury in new ways. The focus is no longer contamination itself, but instead the abnormal diets of women of color, who must choose to become white to protect their offspring and the greater population. Finally, to the extent that they fail to make the right choice-fail to act as good citizens-this leads to bodily differences between people of “different” races. That is, not only are women blamed, but race is the material effect of this liberal biopolitics of environmental health.