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Book Review: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin

February 1, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan FaginSummary:
The residents of Toms River, New Jersey didn’t mind when a CIBA chemical plant opened up in their backyard in the 1950s. It brought jobs to their small town that mostly depended upon tourism. But slowly the river started to look funny. There were plumes of funny-smelling smoke coming from the building, at first during the day, then only late at night when they were asleep. And a nurse at a hospital specializing in children’s cancer notices an awful lot of cases coming from Toms River. What follows is a multi-year public health investigation and lawsuit, only the second of its kind in the United States (the first being the Woburn, Massachusetts toxic water case).

Review:
I picked this book up for a couple of reasons. I work in an academic library that serves a Public Health program (among others), and I thought reading about a landmark case would be helpful. I also was just personally curious about how bad the pollution actually is in New Jersey. (For my non-American readers, there’s a running joke that New Jersey is the “stinky armpit” of the United States, due to the pollution).

The short version of what I got out of it is that I researched and bought the best reasonably priced water filtration pitcher for my household and will scold my husband if he drinks water directly from the sink instead of from the pitcher. The more academic version is that I learned that epidemiology is not as straight-forward as it seems, and things we can know just by looking at the situation are not easily proved. Additionally, what a woman puts into her body during pregnancy is much more important than what a young child eats or drinks.

The book is written in an investigative journalism style. If you’re comfortable reading the science section of the New York Times or something similar, you will be fine reading this book. Some of the science was new to me, but it was well-explained. On the negative end, the writing can sometimes be a bit sensationalistic. For instance, at one point the author assumes to know the reason why some people leave a meeting, jumping to the most sensational reason–that they were “repulsed” (loc 5441). (If he knows for sure why they left because he interviewed them, he does not make that clear). Most statements that are clearly factual are well-cited, however.  Although the book is well-written and interesting, it simply reads as dense. I often found myself wondering if he could have maybe sped up the delivery a bit. It periodically felt like a slog, even though I was quite interested in the topic.

The book starts with introducing one of the children who was born with neuroblastoma, a particularly nasty form of childhood cancer. Then it flashes back to the arrival of CIBA in the 1950s. This clearly establishes the reader’s empathy with the children with cancer from the get-go. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s not exactly unbiased.

So let’s get to what I learned.  Here are the unequivocally bad things that CIBA did:

  • They claimed to residents that only “the purified effluent, clear, neutral and harmless to fish life, is discharged into the Toms River” (loc 671)
  • When residents complained about pollution, instead of taking pollution-minimizing measures, they just re-adjusted their schedule so that most of the discharge happened at night when residents couldn’t see it. (loc 1071)
  • CIBA came to Toms River after being kicked out of Europe and the Midwest for their pollution but didn’t change their practices at all. They simply pursued the location with the least oversight. (For non-American readers, at the time, there were not the national pollution laws in place in the US that there are now. It was more overseen on a state-by-state level).
  • CIBA hid the cancer rate of employees from employees
  • The CIBA water fountains were too toxic for their employees to drink from–they actually stank.
  • The various governmental protection agencies repeatedly found violations at CIBA, for instance, their toxic waste pits were inappropriately lined.

Here’s what I learned about cancer:

  • “Cancer is not one disease but many–more than 150, by most definitions. their only common characteristic is supercharged cell division, growth run amok.” (loc 1842)
  • A swollen lymph node over the left collarbone is an early warning sign of cancer. (loc 1873)
  • “Between ages 5 and 69, the likelihood of getting cancer in any particular year rises with each year of life, and it does so in increasingly large intervals: from about one in nine thousand in the fifth year of life to about one in fifty-seven in the sixty-ninth year.” (loc 1882)
  • “Childhood cancer incidence jumped by more than one-third between 1975 and 2005–more than twice as much as overall cancer incidence.” (loc 1889)
  • The second largest cause of lung cancer in the US after cigarette smoking is radon. (loc 2343)
  • Pregnant women’s consumption of polluted tap water was much more correlated with later childhood cancer than children’s consumption of it themselves (60% more likely vs 8% more likely). (loc 6757)

What I learned about Public Health epidemiology can’t be summed up easily in a bullet-pointed list. Basically, epidemiological studies are incredibly difficult, particularly when the toxic event has already passed. Study methods rely on things like patient recall of what they did day-to-day and massively complicated retroactive restructurings of how the water supply worked and which person got which well-water. The groups of people effected seem large to consumers but in the matter of actual epidemiological numbers are in fact quite small. Too small to easily prove something. As little as one extra child having cancer can be enough for the percent to appear to skyrocket but that could easily be explained as one of the normal abnormalities. A glitch, basically, that is normal when you look at a large population as a whole. Thus, even though people can look at a group and say, “Hey they seem to have a lot of cancer,” it could just be a chance cluster. Or appear like a large number but isn’t actually when you look at the charts over time. Or it could appear like a large number but actually be difficult to prove, numerically, that it is. David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health, is quoted in the book as saying, “A good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large even an epidemiological study can detect it.” (loc 7495) The government is reluctant to investigate these types of cases, because they take a long time, are expensive (Toms River cost over $10 million), are embarrassing, and often work out without anything being able to be proven anyway. In the United States, cancer registries may only be looked at by government agencies, due to privacy laws, so this means that if the government doesn’t look into it, no one can. The book ends on the horrifying note:

Clusters of rare cancers like the one in Toms River may actually be much more common than we can discern with the crude statistical tools of small-number epidemiology. In other words, many more pollution-induced cancer clusters may be out there, but we don’t see them and we rarely even bother to look. (loc 7535)

In the end, the book was interesting, yet a bit of a struggle to get through, as it was quite densely-written. I learned a lot about how epidemiology and public health actually work in the United States, and I was terrified of basically everything (my own tap water, weird smells in the air) the whole time I was reading it and for a few weeks afterwards. I’m still pretty freaked out by my tap water, honestly.

Overall, I would recommend this book to readers with a vested interest in better understanding epidemiology and public health, particularly in the United States, regardless of how uncomfortable knowing these facts might make them. To those who might not be up to the intensive read I would say: be vocal about environmental protection where you live, be careful what you put into your body especially if you are or will be pregnant, and seriously consider filtering your water no matter where you live or how good it tastes. Chemicals we think now are safe we may end up finding out later are not. That is certainly what the mid-20th century taught us.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell II

April 15, 2012 3 comments

Blue and green text on white background.Summary:
Dr. Campbell spent the early part of his scientific career researching diseases of affluence such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.  When a study in rat livers demonstrated that a greater percentage of protein in the diet led to greater disease, Campbell became intrigued.  He designed the China Study to compare Chinese citizens with American citizens, since the Chinese have low rates of these diseases until they immigrate to the United States.  Through this and other studies, he believes he has the proof that most diseases of affluence are caused by the Standard American Diet.  In his book he presents these findings, as well as an insider’s look at the scientific, health, and government trifecta that vastly affects what Americans learn about health.

Review:
Clearly the most valuable part of this book is the chapter that explains Campbell’s China Study.  Since it’s generally not considered ethical to study humans and disease by injecting them with various substances, one of the better methods available is population studies.  You compare and contrast over a long period of time the differences between different populations and attempt to determine what aspects may cause bad health.  It is undeniable that the traditional Chinese rural population compared to Americans eat less animal products and move more.  Additionally they have less disease, particularly cancers, heart disease, and diabetes.  Campbell’s study establishes this easily observed fact into something that has been scientifically proven.  It is also interesting to note that those who emigrate to the US and adopt the Standard American Diet (SAD) change to the American rate of these diseases.  This is ground-breaking information, of course, but it is easy to gather this all from one chapter.  Campbell finds it necessary, for some reason, to devote a chapter to each illness, which frankly gets repetitive and tedious to read.

Beyond the study itself, which is interesting and good for people who aren’t already convinced of the health problems caused by animal products, I felt the rest of the presentation of these facts to be dull in comparison to Diet for a New America.  Where Campbell’s strength lies is in discussing his experiences as an insider in the American health and scientific industry, which frankly we all know is royally fucked up.  He addresses at length how these have become intertwined with the government and animal product lobbyists to the extent that for the sake of profit of animal product producers and those working in medicine, Americans are getting a severely watered down version of what scientists and health care workers know to be the facts.  Anytime anyone tries to tell Americans to eat less animal products, the lobbyists get all up in the way.  This is why people talk about how capitalism should not be involved in health.  It’s only natural that people who have spent decades learning cardiology might not want to suddenly have half the surgeries to perform because heart disease can be reversed by diet.  Or that people who own a dairy farm might not want American women to know that dairy consumption leads to osteoporosis.  But it does.  And Campbell illustrates why and how these facts are kept from the American public.

He also eloquently shows why we have constantly conflicting news stories on health.  Everyone knows the joke about how eggs were bad for you then good for you then bad for you (but only the yolks) all over again.  Campbell shows how this is the direct result of the conflict within the science and health industry.

I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to health, government is not for the people; it is for the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of the people. It is a systemic problem where industry, academia and government combine to determine the health of this country. (page 318)

I have worked in the health field myself for years now, and I can tell you, the vast majority of the people who do genuinely care about you and your health.  But traditions are hard to break and even those within the system don’t know everything that goes on among the lobbyists and the top echelons.  I mean, they are still teaching medical students to utilize BMI to determine health in their patients, when multiple studies have shown it is not a reliable tool.  Why is this?  People want to believe what they’ve first learned, and especially in medicine, if a new idea comes along many many many studies must be done and obstinate people push for it before the method utilized will be changed.  This is meant to protect you from quacks, but unfortunately it can lead to the burying of ground-breaking information.

Plus, how would Americans react if tomorrow Mrs. Obama and her obesity prevention program came out and said everyone needs to go vegetarian or vegan?  Hell, the woman is taking flak for daring to suggest children play outside.  I think you can see my point.

Overall, this book definitely could have been shorter.  I believe it would have worked better if Campbell had presented his study and his insider’s knowledge as to why the health care and science industries seem so confused and conflicting half the time.  I hope this knowledge will convince more Americans to take direct control of their own health and conduct their own research to come to their own conclusions.  It’s worth a read for this knowledge, but if you are not interested in the politics of science and health and simply want the information, then I suggest you go with the more reader-friendly Diet for a New America.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Book Review: Diet For a New America by John Robbins (Diet for a New America Reading Project, Book 1)

January 22, 2012 10 comments

Red white and blue book coverSummary:
John Robbins was born into one of the most powerful corporations in America–Baskin-Robbins.  A company based entirely on selling animal products.  Yet he took it upon himself to investigate the reality of animals products and their impact on Americans, American land, and the world overall.  This book summarizes his extensive research, including personal visits to factory farms.

Review/Discussion:
This is the first book in the Diet for a New America Reading Project 2012 I am hosting.  The project is focused on educating ourselves on the facts behind health and preventative medicine for the well-being of all Americans, an issue that I am sure we can all agree is a serious one.  If you join the project late, please feel free to come back to this post or the GoodReads group after you’ve finished the book to join in on the discussion.  And now, on to the book!

There are books that you read that are so incredibly powerful you are left almost speechless.  Simply wanting to hand out copies to everyone you know, everyone you meet and say, “Please, read this.”  I highlighted so much in my copy that I couldn’t even do my usual of posting all highlighted quotes to my tumblr.  I discovered I was practically illegally reproducing the book, hah.  😉  I thus will do my best to highlight precisely why I find this book trustworthy, why I feel inspired by John Robbins, and the most stunning facts I learned while reading the book.

Why You Should Trust This Book
As a medical librarian, I was very careful to check out Robbins’ resources for his facts, particularly for the health section, which is what this project is focused upon.  Robbins drew his research from vetted, peer-reviewed, well-respected scientific journals, including ones I routinely use in my own work, such as Journal of the American Medical Association, the British Journal of Medicine, and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  He also cites the studies of such organizations as the FDA, the EPA, and the National Cancer Institute.  Additionally, he conducted personal interviews with real factory farmers and scientists.  Additionally, all of his citations are in order.  You may not like the facts he reports, but they are still scientifically backed-up facts.

The fact that John Robbins researched the effects of animal derived foods on the environment and people and decided that it is bad for everyone involved is remarkable when you consider the fact that he comes from a family whose business is based entirely on selling dairy to Americans.  If the man had an innate bias, it would absolutely be on the side of carnists/omnivores, but he astoundingly conducted the research and came down on the side veg*ism.  (His family reunions must really be something…)  This not only makes me respect him, but trust him.  Somebody must be truly convinced to convert away from a business that has made his family, and presumably himself if he had agreed to take over the business, extremely wealthy.

But enough about why this book is trustworthy.  Let’s move on to discuss the astounding scientific facts revealed in the three different sections: animal rights and factory farming, health consequences of eating animal based products, and environmental consequences of meat-based diets.

Animal Rights and Factory Farming
I definitely believe this knowledge is more widely spread than when this book was first published.  I have a hard time imagining growing up in America and not coming to understand the horrors of factory farming, but you never know.  Robbins talks about the psychiatric fact that children who grow up abusing animals are more likely to become criminals in later life.  This, of course, is a basic reason to not base an entire sector of the American economy around factory farms that treat animals horribly like cogs in a machine.  Of course there are more reasons to treat animals well, such as the fact that dogs’ EEG scans are identical to human’s or that dolphins routinely save humans and other animals in the ocean or that many species of animals mate for life showing a dedication most humans can’t pull off.

The horrors of factory farming are so extensive that it’s difficult to even list them.  I feel as if I could go on and on.  Perhaps the best way is to tell you to imagine being in the most crowded elevator possible.  Now imagine that 20 of the 24 hours you’re in there it’s dark.  You’re standing on a slanted, slatted, metal floor.  The food for everyone is all on one side and is dumped in all at once and you must shove and race to get to it.  Of course it’s difficult to even call this food.  It’s a mix of shit, paper, sawdust, chemicals, and antibiotics all spiked with yet another chemical to make it smell better to you.  If you are female, then a hand periodically reaches in and artificially inseminates you, only to rip your baby away from you the instant it is born and hitch machines up to your mammary glands instead of allowing your milk to go to your baby.  If you are male, you are castrated by placing a band around your testicles until they fall off after weeks of the circulation being cut off.

That is the reality for factory farmed animals.  Even if you can manage to ignore the fact that these animals are being pumped full of chemicals and artificial growth hormones that you will then ingest yourself when you eat them or their products, that is still a horrifying way to get your food.  These animals live in terror and pain and die in terror and pain.  There is nothing natural about a factory farm.  Animals were meant to live outside and graze and nurse their babies and maybe live in a herd or a flock.  Not be caged up in situations so unnatural that they literally go crazy and cannibalize each other when they are naturally herbivores.  That is the reality of what you are supporting when you buy factory-farmed animal products.

Human Health
Ok, so maybe now you don’t believe in factory farming, but what about eating animals in general?  We were raised to believe that a healthy diet involves meat, dairy, and eggs, right?  Surely if an animal is raised organically and humanely all will be well?  Well, the meat and dairy lobbyists have done a LOT of work to hide from you the scientific studies that show their products are unhealthy for you.  If you read only a portion of this book, read the health section.  It is impossible for me in this discussion and review to make as eloquent a point as Robbins does.  I will instead sum it up for you.

In scientific studies published in reputable scientific journals such as JAMA, vegetarians have drastically less occurrence of: heart disease, all cancers, strokes, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypoglycemia, multiple sclerosis, ulcers, IBS, arthritis, kidney stones, gallstones, hypertension, anemia, and asthma.  Those who still have any of the chronic diseases are distinctly less symptomatic than the meat-eaters.  Vegans (people who consume no animal products whatsoever) have even LOWER occurrences than vegetarians.  This is vetted by multiple different studies run by different scientists in multiple nations.  Even simply comparing the data of these diseases between countries following the standard American diet and those following a primarily plant-based diet backs these statistics up.

I am sure that those of you who read the book as I did were stunned to hear that these studies have been in the reputable journals since as early as the late 1960s and 1970s and yet we have not heard about them.  Who is to blame?  The meat and dairy lobbyists of course.  What would happen to their businesses if the American people suddenly stopped following the standard American diet?  The Dairy Council provides the nutritional packets at your kids’ schools.  Think about that.

The Environment
The environmental impact of a meat-based diet has started to crop up more often recently with the increased interest in the green movement.  Essentially, Robbins primarily reiterates what I believe most of us already know.  The chemicals necessary to factory farm are bad for the whole planet.  It takes more fossil-fuel energy, more water, and more acreage to feed one person a meat-based diet than a plant-based diet.  These are things that are definitely relevant, particularly to people who don’t believe in human population control.  What I personally found most interesting in this section though was the discovery that American imports meat from Central and South American nations who have been destroying rainforest to do so, and their people are still overwhelmingly on a meat-based diet.  Thus these nations are destroying their own ecologies to support Americans’ wasteful meat-based diets.  That is just disgusting and selfish on our parts.

My Conclusion
I am honestly a bit shocked at the extent of the facts that I didn’t know when I became a vegetarian in January of 2006.  I admit I mostly became one out of an empathy for animals that I have always strongly felt, but additionally the less meat I ate, the better I felt.  Becoming a vegetarian mostly eliminated the symptoms of my IBS as the scientific studies Robbins cites showed.  But….I have a hard time imagining anyone reading the facts like this and not drastically changing their eating habits.  So many of the economic and personal problems in the US today have to do with health.  So maybe you’ve read this book and you still don’t care about animals and you still believe humans are better than them.  But don’t you want to be as healthy as you can be for your lifetime?  Wouldn’t you rather be a happy, healthy grandparent than a stooped-over one on multiple heart medications or going through chemotherapy?  Even if you don’t care about that, don’t you want to leave a healthier planet for your children and your children’s children?  The facts unequivocally show that the fewer animal products you consume, the better all of these outcomes will be.

Once we become aware of the impact of our food choices, we can never really forget. (page 379)

Source: Better World Books

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Discussion Questions:

  • Robbins believes that the scientific studies reported in the medical journals aren’t well-known because of the meat and dairy lobbies.  Do you think this is the case?  Why or why not?
  • If you do think the facts aren’t known because of the meat and dairy lobbies, how can we combat this?
  • If you don’t think the lobbyists have anything to do with the lack of public knowledge of these issues, what do you think the true cause is?
  • Do you believe the fight for organic animal farming is doing anything to help the environmental and health issues cited in the book?
  • What do you think can be done to get the meat and dairy lobbyists out of our schools?
  • Would you be willing to change your diet knowing the facts about the diseases it can cause or do you think it’s not worth the effort?
  • Do you believe money is better spent on treating the disease or preventing the disease?
  • Do you think world hunger can be successfully combated with a change in the diets of those in the first world countries?

Book Review: Gargoyles by Alan Nayes (Series, #1)

December 22, 2011 2 comments

Eyes behind a beaker.Summary:
Amoreena is determined to be a doctor and help people.  She’s a hard-working, scholarship student on the pre-med track in her third year of college.  Unfortunately, her single mother just got diagnosed with metastatic cancer and lost her health insurance.  With no time for a job and no money for the bills, Amoreena is grateful when she is approached by a surrogacy clinic to be a surrogate for $50,000 with payments upon successful insemination and each trimester.  But after she’s successfully inseminated, Amoreena becomes increasingly concerned that something is not quite right with her baby.

Review:
This book is best summed up as the scientific Rosemary’s Baby, which also means it kicks serious ass.  Even people who find pregnancy to be a miracle (people who I completely do not understand) are creeped out by a pregnancy gone awry.  This basic storyline then is ideal for a modern update aka switch out the demons and Satanism for science.

Nayes successfully sets up a realistic and compelling reason behind Amoreena’s surrogate motherhood, which is key to the whole story.  Readers need to be able to believe that this intelligent woman made a not so intelligent choice with good reason.  A loving relative dying with no health insurance is something so relatable to most Americans that it gives the whole story a more realistic tone than it might otherwise have.  Also, the amount of stress Amoreena is under gives a plausible other reason for her difficult pregnancy to add to the mystery.

The secondary characters are well-rounded and believable.  Nayes handles the largely Hispanic array of them with deft and avoidance of stereotyping.  There is no othering of the company or those in control of it.  The answers to the problems are not so black and white as a lot of international intrigue tends to make it, and I appreciated that.  The gray areas of science and scientific research are clearly depicted while also accurately showing the full range of humanity present in Mexico and Guatemala.

So with all these positives, why am I not totally in love with it?  The ending and big reveal are a bit anti-climactic.  The suspense is built up so well that the relatively average ending couldn’t quite live up to it.  I think the choice to make the main character sick during the climax was not a wise one.  The book does redeem itself though with the somewhat cliffhanger ending that will lead into the next book in the series, and I am excited for it to come out.

Overall this horror suspense is a great addition to the genre of evil pregnancies.  I recommend it and am looking forward to the next entry in the series.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from the author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly (Graphic Novel)

June 22, 2011 1 comment

Green-tinted girl pointing at herself against red background.Summary:
Barbara is a middle school student with one intense focus–she must learn how to kill giants before it is too late.  She doesn’t fit in much at school or have many friends, but she doesn’t really care, because she needs to be ready for the giant.  The giant is connected to a secret at home, you see, and this secret takes over her life too much to care about all those silly things the other girls talk about.

Review:
I picked up this graphic novel because it was getting tons of buzz as being an excellent graphic novel.  I also wanted to know what this big secret was in Barbara’s life.  Does the graphic novel address something that isn’t discussed much in polite society but is still an issue for many middle schoolers out there?  I was dying to know!  Unfortunately, I found myself incredibly disappointed with this graphic novel.  I can’t discuss why without spoiling what the giant is, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, skip this review.

I was expecting the giant Barbara is facing at home to be something like abuse or incest.  Instead, it turns out Barbara’s mother is dying of cancer.  Um. Ok.  I’m sorry, a big scary giant doesn’t seem to be quite the right metaphor for a dying parent.  What makes this little girl think she can fight death?  I guess I just don’t get it.

Additionally, I just really didn’t like Barbara.  I honestly get tired of graphic novel writers always making the main character a geek.  This little girl–shocker–plays D&D.  She is cruel to her classmates.  She judges them.  She’s even mean to the one girl who for some unearthly reason shows an interest in Barbara and what she likes to do.  She, quite frankly, rubs me the wrong way, and I don’t think she’s supposed to.

Then there’s the art.  I also didn’t like that, especially how he drew Barbara.  Why does she have bunny ears?  What’s up with that?  The drawing style never feels artistic.  Not once did I find myself sucked into the pictures to get further into Barbara’s world.  They felt more like badly-done newspaper comic strips than a graphic novel.

Overall, I’m disappointed that I even bothered with this book.  It’s one of those few instances when if I’d known the spoiler ahead of time, I’d have saved myself some time.  I can’t even imagine handing this over to a middle schooler dealing with a terminally ill relative, because I don’t think it particularly presents healthy coping mechanisms or solutions to unhealthy ones.  Why this book is so popular remains a mystery to me.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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