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Contested Illnesses Research Group
Brown University , Providence RI

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Contested Illnesses: Disputes over Environmentally-Induced Diseases

This project set out to examine "contested illnesses" that involve major scientific disputes and extensive public debates over environmental causes. This project focused on three such conditions: the emergence of unexplained illnesses among veterans of the Gulf War, small air particles and asthma, and environmental causes of breast cancer. For each, this project examined how the condition came to be a social problem by asking:
  1. How did victims and their lay allies identify these illnesses and organize to seek redress?
  2. How did the illness become contested by government, science, business, and the public, and what was the role of mass media?
  3. How did these disputes lead to progress in disease detection and etiology and the development of less toxic products?
  4. What was the effect on the health of those directly impacted and on public health policy?

This project employed a wide variety of analytic methods, including content analysis of government documents, scientific papers, and popular media; interviews with key stakeholders; and ethnographic observation of four research and advocacy organizations working on these contested illness debates: Silent Spring Institute (a research center devoted exclusively to the investigation of environmental causes of breast cancer); Boston Environmental Hazard Center (a research center examining Gulf War Illnesses), Action for Community and Environment (a research and advocacy organization devoted to environmental causes of asthma), and Toxic Use Reduction Institute (a lay-initiated agency that promulgates policies to encourage toxic use reduction).

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation