Book Review: Modern Poisons


When I spoke to John Warner, a founder of the field of green chemistry, for the CEH podcast, he made the observation that in educating chemists, the toxicology of the compounds they are creating is rarely considered. In a chemistry class at any level, he said, ask the chemists to describe a compound they are studying and they will tell you it’s a liquid, it’s viscous, it melts at a certain temperature — but no one would likely say, it’s non-toxic, with limited environmental impact. This just isn’t considered the chemists’ job. “You can get a degree in chemistry without ever having a class in toxicology,” John noted.

But the basic concepts of toxicology are not just for chemists. As Alan S. Kolok notes in his new book Modern Poisons: A Brief Introduction to Contemporary Toxicology, most of our current toxicology textbooks overlook the social and political aspects of the field. Kolok ably addresses this deficiency in Modern Poisons, with engaging, brief overviews of the history of chemical regulation in the U.S., how potentially dangerous compounds are assessed, and some recent scientific developments that are challenging the very foundations of the field.

Most Americans believe that chemicals, like food and drugs, are subject to strict government oversight. So readers may be surprised to learn that, while legislation requiring pre-market safety testing for food additives and drugs was adopted nearly 60 years ago, today the U.S. still allows untested chemicals on the market. The current chemical safety proposal in Congress, widely hailed as a long-needed “update” to our lax oversight, would do little to change this, thus failing to create the protections our children and families urgently need.

Kolok, the Isaacson Profesor of Research and Director of the Nebraska Watershed Network at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, shows just how dangerous this failing may be. For example, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals from combustion of coal and coke burners, diesel-fueled engines, and other sources. But Kolok notes that while these chemicals give us “the gift of fire,” they are also linked to increases in cancer. Pesticides date back 70,000 years, he notes, but farm poisons like DDT persist in the environment and wreak havoc on wildlife. Toxic metals like lead, mercury and others pose risks to our health and the environment that we’re still suffering from despite decades of science showing the harms from these substances.

Kolok highlights episodes in the history of chemical regulation that show how individuals and groups worked to win protections for people and the environment. He also elegantly explains some complex recent science that challenges the strict interpretation of toxicology’s foundational notion that ”the dose makes the poison.” For example, chemicals that can mimic and alter the bodies’ natural hormones may have more harmful effects at lower doses. Then there are self-replicating prions, like the substances linked to “mad cow” disease, which can become ever more harmful even without repeated dosing. Or plasmids, which may facilitate the transit of antibiotic resistance to disease-causing bacteria, potentially leading to the proliferation of resistant diseases.

Kolok makes all of this accessible and relevant to our current concerns about harmful chemicals. Everyone who cares about healthier environments for our children and families will benefit from reading Modern Poisons.