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Measuring the Chemicals Within: The Social Terrain of Human Biomonitoring in the United States


The health sciences are increasingly populated by an array of new technologies and techniques that promise to reveal novel information about the causes of common human diseases and conditions. Among these is human biomonitoring, a method for assessing human exposures to environmental chemicals by measuring these chemicals or their metabolites in human fluids and tissues. Based on a multi-sited ethnography and historical research, this dissertation follows biomonitoring into laboratories, public health programs, advocacy organizations, universities, and a clinic: the spaces where biomonitoring data are being made, used, and `lived with' by those who receive personalized results. I show that just as the X-ray offered a new way of seeing bones inside living bodies during the late nineteenth century, the use of human biomonitoring is now providing an unprecedented look at the natural and synthetic chemicals present in human tissues and fluids. In doing so, I argue that the availability of biomonitoring is fundamentally reshaping both how and what we know about the relationships between bodies and environmental chemicals in ways that are consequential for life and labor across a number of social settings. For example, in epidemiologic and basic science research, biomonitoring data are enabling new links to be established between chemical exposures and a variety of health outcomes. In environmental health advocacy arenas, biomonitoring data are being used to publicize and politicize the chemical "body burdens" of average Americans and as the grounds for making new kinds of citizenship claims. For individuals who are `biomonitored' and informed of their results, this data is giving rise to new "technoscientific identities" (Clarke et al., 2003) around particular chemical exposures. By mapping the historic and current uses of human biomonitoring across several social and scientific domains, this dissertation not only provides a portrait of biomonitoring in practice, but also highlights the scientific, social, and ethical complexities associated with its current use.

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