A Small Dose of Toxicology, 2nd edition, by Steven G. Gilbert, 2011, E-pub, Kindle, pdf,
Reviewed by Deborah Blum
In 2004, a Seattle-based researcher, Steven Gilbert, published a 280-page paperback titled A Small Dose of Toxicology. You might not guess from that modest title that the author was on a scientist on a crusade. But he was. He is.
"It's critical that we scientists be more engaged with the public," he says."We're talking about environmental issues that are having a bigger and bigger impact on our lives." He had big goals for the book too - he wanted it to contribute to public awareness, to encourage people to demand more of a government response, greater corporate responsbility. He wanted it to change things: "We have an ethical responsibility to our children."
Gilbert had a long-time background in the study of poisonous things. He received a PhD in toxicology from the University of Rochester in 1986. He was founder of the non-profit Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. His particular area of study was in the area of low-dose exposures to toxic chemicals, an area that he was uneasily aware remained poorly understood.
And after some years, he just wasn't sure that the paperback was having the hoped for effect. Or that his publisher was particularly enthusiastic. So he decided to take it on as a DIY project. "I was originally disappointed. Then, I thought, well I could do this myself." First, he started a website, Toxipedia, which provides a free, searchable database of information on toxic chemicals. And then he started his own e-book publishing company, Healthy World Press, and published the second edition of A Small Dose of Toxicology himself.
The book is one of three now published by Healthy World and all follow the same model. They are offered as free downloads in either e-pub, Kindle, or pdf format from the Toxipedia website. There's a requested donation to Gilbert's non-profit but it's not required. "My first goal wasn't to make money," he said. "It was to have an impact."
I contacted Gilbert after discovering his e-book on the Toxipedia site. This was not, um, my first visit there in search of poisonous information. It's a natural consequence of writing a book about poisons and blogging on that same subject over the last few years. Really. Although sometimes I worry that the search history on my hard drive, riddled with visits to Toxipedia, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and their ilk suggests the habits of a fairly iffy character.
But anyway - and more to the point, I recognized in Gilbert's work an awareness not unlike my own - that we exist in a chemical world, that we've yet to map that complicated terrain or fully understand its risks. And that as our adventures in chemistry - taking as a simple example, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - change our planet, there's an imperative need to do tell that story better.
Still I was curious.
One can admire the crusade and still wonder if it's actually accomplishing anything. I wondered whether Gilbert's decision to go to e-self publishing improved the paper product in any meaningful way. And it's with those questions in mind that I now want to address the book directly. For comparison purposes, I downloaded it in two different versions on my iPad, as an e-pub (which went direct to my iBooks library) and as a pdf. It's also possible to simply read the book on-line here.
At its most basic, A Small Dose of Toxicology remains a reader-friendly reference book. As my pdf version tells me, it's still 280 pages. It has 21 chapters (although I had to count them because in the e-version, they are not numbered in the table of contents). The book starts with an overview - "Toxicology and You" , followed by a brief history of poisons and their studies, followed by chapters that focus on a specific toxic substance or issue. The first three chapters do this through a lens of everyday consumption: alcohol, caffeine, nicotine. The book then explores such famously poisonous materials as arsenic, mercury and lead before moving onto subjects such as as endocrine disrupters and radiation exposure.
In other words , it contains many small doses of information about many toxic things. You can see exactly why a poison-obsessed writer like myself would go for the material. But the better thing about it is that it's not written for someone like me. Gilbert is aiming for a more general audience (he tells me he hopes to see it used in high school classrooms) and he succeeds in making this a solidly written, clear, and occasionally fascinating exploration of toxic chemistry.
Of course, it's hard to make poison too boring. Still, he has a nice technique of using everyday examples to create level-headed explanations, for instance in this section on calculating a toxic dose:
"There are approximately 100 mg of caffeine in a cup of coffee. The actual amount of caffeine depends on the coffee beans, how the coffee was prepared, and size of the cup. And adult weighing 155 pounds (about 70 kg) who consumes this cup of coffee would receive a dose of 100 mg divided by 70 kg or 1.4 mg/kg of caffeine. The importance of including body weight becomes clear if you consider a child who weighs 5 kg (about 11 pounds). If this child consumed the same amount of coffee, the dose would be 100 mg/5 kg or 20 mg/kg, more than ten times higher than the adults."
And he weaves such examples throughout his story, later calculating the half-life of a cup of coffee in the body (about four hours), later again looking at the effect of pregnancy on that half-life question: "During the last two trimesters of pregnancy, caffeine metabolism decreases, and the half-life increases to about twice normal, or 8-10 hours. This means that after caffeine consumption both the material blood levels and the infant's exposure will stay higher for a longer period of time."
These facts and examples are neatly ordered. Each chapter begins with a "quick facts" chart, followed by a history of the specific poison and its use in society (lead in pipes and paint, mercury in thermometers and so forth), followed by case studies - the recent discovery of lead in children's lunch boxes where it was used to stabilize the plastic - followed by information about health effects, ongoing research, and government regulations.
Occasionally, though, the author goes beyond textbook into advocacy: "We need to reduce the use of lead in a wide range of consumer products," Gilbert writes in the chapter about that heavy metal. These opinionated moments and his sense of story telling, lift the book beyond standard textbook. Although I suspect that also means that it won't appeal to readers from the anti-environmental movement.
But, you may ask, couldn't he present the advocacy and information just as neatly in a print format? And I've come to believe that he couldn't. Oh, the downloaded books have some of the usual glitches we find in these early days of e-book publishing. I complained earlier that the table of contents in the pdf version didn't provide page numbers for chapters. The iBook version I downloaded skipped the table of contents entirely (I could have tried again for a better result but I just flipped over to the pdf for the information).
But, but, the e-version does work in ways that would just not be possible in print - by which I mean that it offers a dazzling array of live links to additional information and resources. The introduction is followed by four pages of links to regulatory agencies and other organizations around the world that archive information on toxic materials. Further links stud the text and there are yet more at the end of each chapter. Not to mention links to graphics, powerpoints, interactive posters.
Gilbert is especially proud of his Milestones of Toxicology poster, which you can link to from the book or here from the website. The poster has now been translated into ten languages, mostly recently Arabic. A Chinese translation is in the works. He also likes the idea that as publisher of his own e-book, he can keep it updated. When I talked to him, he was already planning to add new research papers into the book and, in fact, planning a third edition that would make better use of his website and contain more hyperlinks to Toxipedia.
Yes, empire-building already out in the digital universe. But in a good cause. We really do need to know more about poison.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-selling The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She is a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.