Public health controversy of radioactive warfare: Depleted uranium and displaced discourse in Medically Unexplained Chronic Syndromes (MUCS)
Bell, David Elijah
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The use of depleted uranium weapons has generated much international controversy over possible public health consequences. This dissertation examines the role of medical sociopolitics in the debate over depleted uranium as an etiological factor for the conglomeration of illnesses known as Gulf War Syndrome, or what the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs has labeled Medically Unexplained Chronic Syndromes (MUCS). Using illness narratives and ethnographic observation, I examine biomedical liminality with poor disease legitimization and high anxiety in the context of three different populations with similar quantifiable exposures: U.S. Gulf War veterans, residents of Niagara Falls industrial contamination with Manhattan Project legacy, and Iraqi and Afghan immigrants to Western New York. Including experience of doctors, researchers, and advocates within the low-dose irradiation debate, I demonstrate that while biological exposures may be similar, sources of anxiety and contestation of illness vary dramatically, with displaced discourses and conceptual dualities both perpetuating and obfuscating socially localized illness debates. In addition, I argue that biopolitical and political-economic concerns for radioactive warfare act as a common thread throughout all these debates, for which public health controversy itself may be a displaced discourse from a wider scientific Western cultural perspective. For this reason, I discuss a public health controversy which is not over but conceptually of radioactive warfare – despite cognitive dualities or binary oppositions which function to conceal any association to preserve the social utility of this controversy. Ultimately this dissertation is about strategic presentations and uses of uncertainty, from both individual and societal points of view. Research methods are focused to past and ongoing work of the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) of Waterport, N.Y., a non-profit research organization with many key scientific publications in the public health controversy over internal contamination with uranium isotopes. This study is based on my own personal experience of eight years as a UMRC volunteer, including all UMRC activities, inquiries and interactions occurring during this time, and a total of 80 semi-structured and unstructured personal interviews with various associates or contacts related to the UMRC.