Tuesday, 11 January 2005

Venomous Earth – Andrew A. Meharg ****

“How arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning” reads the subtitle – and this book is quite a shock when it comes to the way that this natural element has a habit of turning up in the wrong place, making people ill and all too often killing them.
To be honest, the first part of the book, on the aforementioned mass poisoning, isn’t the best bit, although there are some horrifying revelations, such as the way the “safe” level for chronic exposure to arsenic in Bangladesh is in fact the UK’s historical safe level for a short acute exposure. Despite the fact (or perhaps even because of the fact) that Andrew Meharg, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, had a direct involvement in some of the testing of water from tube wells in coastal Bangladesh that had picked up horribly high levels of arsenic, his account of the disaster putting tens of thousands at risk doesn’t read like the first person input of someone who is active on the front line, but rather a measured and frankly slightly dull report for some parliamentary committee. The content is fine, if rarely coming up with anything that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, and it’s never actually boring, but it could read a lot better.
The saving grace of the book, though, is that it gets a lot better when Meharg plunges back into the history of humanity’s bumpy relationship with arsenic, which has been treated as a positive medicine at the same time as being known to be a powerful poison. Particularly effective is his discussion of the Victorians’ use of arsenic in wallpapers to give green (and other) colours. The expectation, if you aren’t familiar with the history, is that this was done with little knowledge of the potential dangers, and only many years later was it discovered that the arsenic in the wallpaper could cause problems.
In fact the problem was widely publicized at the time with newspapers running campaigns against it. What’s more the workers who made the paper and other goods with arsenic colouring were at a terrible risk. Not only was the public outcry ignored for many years, arsenic was even occasionally used as food colouring with the predictable deadly outcome. Meharg’s coverage of arsenic in wallpapers is fascinating, especially his consideration of the great William Morris, whose obsession with only using plant dyes in later years covered up a past of making heavy use of arsenic greens without ever admitting to it.
The book continues to be fascinating as it penetrates the quack medicinal use of arsenic and its gradual convergence with arsenic’s infamous poisoning role on an understanding of this deadly element. Because of that, Venomous Earth scrapes in with four stars, and is well worth reading, but it could do with a bit more work on the natural poisoning coverage.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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