Saturday, February 11, 2012

Textbook Toxicology

We live in a world full of chemicals and any chemical can be poisonous in the right dose. Drink two gallons of water (which is, of course, a chemical) all at once and you could very well die. Too much vitamin D is harmful, while smaller amounts are essential. The Dose Makes the Poison: A Plain-Language Guide to Toxicology by Patricia Frank and M. Alice Ottoboni (which I received from Amazon Vine) sounded fascinating, and one review on Amazon mistakenly referred to it as a "reference," which made me imagine a sort of encyclopedia of all the chemicals (especially the hard-to-pronounce kinds) we encounter in our daily lives.

There is a lot of very interesting information in this book, such as the fact that rats can't vomit - which is why manufacturers of rat poison add a chemical that induces vomiting in case dogs, cats, or children (who can and frequently do vomit) consume the product. It was also interesting to know why you're not supposed to induce vomiting if you swallow gasoline. And I really found the information about mercury poisoning to be interesting, although I do wish they'd told us exactly how to clean it up.

But for all the fascinating information, there was a lot more that just sounded like a chemistry or toxicology textbook (although maybe not as dense). The subtitle says "A Plain-Language Guide to Toxicology," and for the most part it is very plain... but not always. Sometimes words and terms were not explained, and other times they were just repeated a bit too oft. And it didn't help that the tone of the book is sometimes a bit lecturing.

The authors make the valid point that chemicals are usually maligned by the public and sensationalized by the media. We blame (or at least suspect) them for unexplained illnesses and especially vilify "synthetic" or man-made chemicals. (In truth, Mother Nature's cupboard is more dangerous than man's.) The fact is that modern chemistry has improved our lives dramatically and a little understanding on our part is very eye-opening. The book also explains the difficulties in determining risks and side-effects of consumer goods, how they are tested (including animal subjects), and the measures used by toxicologists. And while the book makes a lot of good points (and is probably a lot more readable than a real textbook), it's not always the kind of book you'd describe as "couldn't put it down." Nor is it a "reference."

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