Poisoned Planet examines, in great detail, different sources and types of chemical pollution, from contaminants in food as a result of certain farming practices, to land contamination as a result of dubious manufacturing processes through to a mind boggling variety of sources of water pollution. The descriptions are detailed and highly emotive, often using personal tales rather than the peer reviewed studies. Towards the end of the book hope for the future is given, with a variety of examples of how contaminated sites can be successfully rehabilitated including the Homebush site from the Sydney Olympic Games. The conclusion contains the outline of an ambitious plan for consumers to drive a more environmentally sustainable future.
However, this book has flaws which damage its message to such an extent that I would be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone. The author has a point to make about danger of chemicals in the environment and has crafted the entire book to support this contention. At times this leads to statements which when examined seem to, almost humorously, bely the author’s intention. One example from Chapter 2 (Are you a contaminated site?) notes that “It also found 5 per cent of the population had levels of the toxic metal cadmium in their blood close to the level of concern”. This appears to be saying that none of the population had enough cadmium in their systems to be worried about. Why not just say that?
Another issue in this book is the use of buzzwords like “poison” and toxic”. There is an oft quoted phrase that “the dose makes the poison” which the author of this book appears to have either never heard or to have scrupulously ignored. What makes something toxic or a poison is simply how much you are exposed to. One example is vitamin A which needs to be consumed for our survival but can cause birth defects in pregnant women, another is formaldehyde, a chemical which can have severe adverse effects but it is also produced within our own bodies. The difference between a normal part of life, and life threatening toxin, is simply the amount in question. Throughout the book there is next to no context for the amounts of the different chemicals mentioned which makes assessing the risk involved impossible.
Another red flag is the author’s frequently expressed disdain for medicine. From an almost complete lack of epidemiological studies which could help examine if this proposed chemical burden was having wide spread effects on the health of our population through to the (unreferenced) claim of 18,000 Australian deaths per year due “medical mishaps” which is based on a 20 year old study of under 700 deaths and has been discredited on the basis of other studies.
The book also has a number of very strange contentions including that the lack of female chemists is a contributing factor to environmentally damaging chemical pollution. Another is that one of the major things that can be done to change the world and save us from this chemical time-bomb is to support farmers who don’t use (synthetic?) chemicals in food production and to reward their stance by paying higher prices – an idea that overlooks the financial hardships of getting enough food already facing many (if not the majority) people in both developed and developing countries. I was hoping for an engaging and accessible evidence-based examination of the risks of our current chemical lifestyle choices – what Poisoned Planet delivers is not so much a science book as a book of lists without context.
Dave Hawkes is a virologist and neuroscientist who researches how different regions and cells in the brain process emotional stress. He is also a science activist with scientific publications on the best way to incorporate traditional Chinese medicine into current treatment paradigms, HPV vaccination and the safety of chiropractic. Dave has also had articles published by Australasian Science, The Conversation, Australian Doctor and Mamamia.com. He is also very passionate about using social media as a mechanism for transferring both scientific and health knowledge to the broader community.
Dave’s Twitter: @mrhawkes