Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…