Speakeasy Science

The poisoner among us

Last week, The Poisoner’s Handbook got a great, pre-publication review in one of my favorite magazines,  New Scientist.  I was thrilled – and relieved. Hard to say which came first.  The week before publication – the book’s official date is Feb. 22 – always makes me a little crazy.

But much as I like my work being called “fascinating” (and I do, I do), it was the closing sentence of the review that really spoke to me: “Alas, sometimes the poisoners we seek are ourselves.” Collins was referring to the findings by the 1920s toxicologist in my book that carbon monoxide was becoming such an everyday poison – thanks to automobiles and cigarettes in particular – that it was routinely found circulating in people’s bodies. Criminal investigators had been forced to factor in background carbon monoxide levels when they looked at cause of death.

I loved his closing line because, of course,  I agreed with it. We’ve built a society that depends on industrial chemistry and we don’t always fully consider the implications of that. Carbon monoxide (a neat packaging of one carbon and one oxygen atom) is produced by incomplete conbustion of organic material.  Of course, we inhale it in the smoke of burning tobacco leaves.  Of course, it seeps out of vehicle exhaust pipes and coal-burning plants. It swirls in the air we breathe every day. And, we’re used to the fact that it occasionally kills people; I wrote in an earlier blog about the CO deaths that followed the mega-snowstorms on the East Coast.  New media reports say in total 170 people went to the hospital suffering CO poisoning from faulty generators and heaters.

We don’t rise up in outrage over such poisonings. We’re far too used to them.  There are exceptions, of course: fury over bisphenyl-A in plastic baby bottles or melamine in milk. But we don’t trouble the waters too much. After all, modern society exists on a rather amazing foundation of industrial chemistry. It keeps us warm, keeps up fed, treats our illnesses…the list is endless.   So as a society, we’ve tacitly agreed to not be too hard on the poisoners among us, considering they might just be ourselves.