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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 Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow

Kenyan woman standing in a field.Summary:
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season.  One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision.  Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes.  Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.

Review:
Every once in a while there’s a book that you know will impact your entire life.  I know this is one of those books.

Thurow strikes the perfect balance between narrating the farmers’ lives and knowledgeably discussing the global politics and environmental problems that also impact the hunger.  The information he hands out would be riveting in any case, but how he narrates it kicks it up to another level.

Central to the book is this question:

Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? (location 202)

I know we all know there is hunger in the world, but it can be easy to ignore when it doesn’t have a face like David or Dorcas, two of the children featured whose mothers flat out do not have food to give them.  During the wanjala, since it is most of the families’ first years using One Acre Fund, they do not have enough maize (their staple crop) from the year before.  Thus while watching their fields grow, they don’t have enough food to feed their families.  During the height of the wanjala the families routinely have tea for breakfast and lunch and maybe some boiled vegetables or bananas for dinner.  And they still must farm and go to school.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so humbled.

Don’t get me wrong.  The families profiled in this book aren’t put on a pedestal or romanticized or distanced.  They are very real.  But their strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges has no other option but to be inspirational.  Because it is so real.

You don’t focus on the afflictions you have, on your poverty; you focus on where you are going. (location 1469)

Makes you feel bad for complaining about morning commutes, doesn’t it?

Beyond talking about the disgusting fact that there is still hunger in a world with so much plenty and demonstrating the resilience of the families, the book also discusses One Acre Fund’s poverty fighting ideas.  Basically they operate on the teach a man to fish principle.  Thurow talks about how Youn, the founder, believes that bringing in food aid to feed farmers is absurd.  We should instead be helping them to farm better.  Beyond it not being sustainable to feed everyone year after year, it robs the farmers of their dignity.  This was the point I liked best.  These people are not dumb or lazy.  They are victims of a system that is not working.  Helping them help themselves lets them retain their humanity and dignity.  I think that’s something that is often missing in charity work and ngos, but it’s vital to truly changing the game.

Overall, if you want a book that will challenge your perceptions, humble you, broaden your horizons, and help you see how to truly fight global poverty, this is the book for you.  In other words, this is recommended for everyone.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Kenya
map of africa

What Librarians Talk About (MLA12 Seattle: Plenary 3: Janet Doe Lecture by Mark E. Funk, AHIP, FMLA)

The first plenary is given by the MLA president, the second by someone who is not necessarily a librarian but has something interesting to say that will aid us in our profession.  The third plenary, however, is given by a librarian.  Mark E. Funk’s presentation was entitled, “Our Words, Our Story: A Textual Analysis of Articles Published in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association/Journal of the Medical Library Association from 1961 to 2010.”  Here are my notes.

  • An analysis of the words revealed four key areas that librarians talk about: environment, management, technology, and research.
  • Although we talk more about building than people, that gap is narrowing.
  • We are basically almost not talking about books, but we are increasingly talking about journals.
  • Reference is steady.  Searching is increasing.
  • Information is the #2 word.
  • As our information world becomes more complicated, we are talking more and more about teaching.  “I predict teaching will become ever more important.”
  • We are now concerned about what we can do to improve health.
  • New groups we’ve reached out to include: clinicians, consumers, and patients.
  • We use management words to tell our story.
  • We are no longer running our libraries like academic environments; we are running them like businesses.
  • We are early adopters and write about it.
  • Sometimes new technology becomes so embedded in our lives that we don’t mention it anymore.  For example, you say you talked to someone but don’t mention the telephone.
  • Our attention has shifted from automating to digitizing.
  • We don’t talk about the internet.  We talk about the web and navigation.
  • The word with the sharpest rise and fall is: Gopher
  • IMRaDification of our profession.  (IMRaD–Intro, Methodology, Results, Discussion)
  • MLA strategic plan encouraged us to do more research, and we responded.
  • Hockey Stick terms–little to no use, sharp recent uptake.  May indicate future usage but it could be a drastic rise and fall. Only time will tell.
  • EHRs are white hot now. (EHR–Electronic Hospital Record)
  • Why do we study history?  It’s very good at explaining change.  Answers the question, how did we get here?
  • De-emphasis on physical.  Emphasis on information.  Prefer evidence-based.
  • Emphasis on health.  Expanded audience.  Outside the library.   Teaching people.
  • Libraries more business-like. Technophiles. More research articles using IMRaD.
  • History can hint at the future, but it can’t predict it.
  • Our story is being written every day.  We can’t skip chapters to see what happens next.

Book Review: Evolution in a Toxic World: How Life Responds to Chemical Threats by Emily Monosson

Bird, bug, butterfly, and frog.Summary:
Monosson attempts to explain both current and possible future impacts of chemical pollutants on humans by examining how life responded to toxic threats in the past.

Review:
Allow me to preface my review by saying that although I am not a scientist, my profession is that of a medical librarian, so scientific jargon is not new to me.  I would therefore say my understanding of science is somewhere above average American but below actual scientist.  I had the impression from the description that this book is written by a scientist for public consumption aka the average American.  It misses the mark.

The content is great and informative, but it is couched in such an overload of scientific jargon and an assumption of an above average understanding of how the human body works that it was incredibly difficult to get through in order to glean out the interesting information.  Thank goodness I had the kindle version and could look up words easily as I went, or I would have given up within the first chapter.  Additionally, just when things were starting to get interesting, such as with how DDT impacts development in utero, Monosson would switch topics.  Very frustrating!

That said, I did learn quite a bit from this book.  It was just difficult to get to these understandable tidbits given the writing style and structure.  Here are a few interesting things I learned:

Like some pervasive computer operating systems, p53 is an archetypical example of the unintelligent design and compromise that is inherent in evolution—a multifunctional, multipurpose transcriptional coordinator that has only lately been retasked to the job of tumor suppression in large, long-lived orgasms….At the end of the day p53, together with all our other suppressor mechanisms, fails half of humanity.  (location 1314)

Though two species may share a common ancestor and hence a common ancestral receptor or enzyme, once they part ways on the family tree, the branches evolve independently.  (location 1670)

For a genetically male mammal to come out looking and functioning male, he requires in utero exposure to hormones like testosterone and its more potent derivative, dihydrotestosterone, along with a functioning AR. An embryo lacking either hormones or a properly functioning AR (or exposed to chemicals that disrupt either receptor or hormone production) will take on a female appearance, despite possessing a Y chromosome….work by Kelce, Gray, and others revealed that a metabolite of the pesticide DDT was an even more potent inhibitor of the AR than was vinclozolin. Given the ubiquity of DDT and its metabolites, this was a potentially explosive finding. (location 1716)

If our CYP enzymes are increasingly metabolizing a variety of pharmaceuticals, what happens when we add one more, or change our diet, or breathe in chemicals like polyaromatics bound to micron-sized air pollution particulates? (location 2509)

Ultimately though, although I learned a lot, the reading experience itself was a bit daunting for the average American.  I believe this book would best be enjoyed by a scientist for whom evolution is not their normal research area.  They thus would have an easier time with the jargon, but also not already know what Monosson is talking about.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn

December 5, 2011 1 comment

Tony hugging a lion.Summary:
Tony Fitzjohn never quite fit in in England or the middle class existence he was adopted into at a young age.  By his early 20s, he was roaming around Africa, and eventually found a job with George–the elderly Englishman famous for his belief in reintroducing lions into the wild whose efforts were chronicled in Born Free.  In his biography, Tony accounts the steps in his life that led up to his assistantship with George, the two decades he spent learning from him in Kenya, and the efforts he himself has made in Tanzania’s parks.

Review:
This autobiography (memoir?) is an example of how you can not particularly like a person but still admire and respect the work they do.  I know I would never in a million years get along with Tony.  He’s hard-headed, stubborn, a womanizer (prior to getting married in his 40s), matured very late in his life, and can be remarkably short-sighted in how his actions affect others.  And yet.

And yet he has an incredible passion for animals and the environment.  He’s faced down poachers, corrupt government employees, and charging rhinos with frankly, balls of iron.  All for the love of not just the big cats like lions and leopards, but rhinos and wild dogs as well.  I find it fascinating how his love of adventure gradually showed him that animals are not ours to use and abuse.  I wish I had had the time to copy the quote exactly from the book before I had to return it to the library, but essentially he says that we are meant to be stewards of the land that all the rest of the non-human animals need to survive and do what they’re meant to do.  He talks at length about how rhinos often don’t get as much attention because they don’t form a bond, really, with their caretakers the way orphaned big cats do, but that’s not who they are!  Rhinos are aggressive, love fighting each other.  They fight and they mate and that’s what they do and that’s beautiful because that’s who they are.  Letting animals be who they are and do what they do–that’s our real role as humans.

Of course, the animal rights message doesn’t really come out until the end of the memoir.  The beginning is Tony reflecting on his childhood and early years in Africa.  He traveled all over the continent a lot, never really sticking to one country until he met George and stayed put in Kenya for quite a while at the Kora reserve.  At times the writing when he’s recounting his life can be a bit dull.  He seems more focused on naming everyone he ever came across than in telling a story.  This holds true up until the trust sends him to AA and after that he meets his now-wife Lucy.  From then on it is as if a haze is lifted and his passion for everyone around him, the animals, and his family comes through.  I have no doubt that this is at least in part due to his no longer drinking.  It is clear that there are swaths of the prior years that he does not recall.  He even recounts one story that a friend told him when staging his intervention of him getting into a bar fight that he doesn’t even remember happening.  All this is to say, the first half or so of the book is fun bits of lions mixed in between rather dull sections of him just getting the information through to the reader that will be important later.

But the elements with the lions that hold us over in the meantime are absolutely worth it.  It is evident that through all of Tony’s flaws, he has a natural ability to work with big cats and an innate understanding and love of them.  He does not doubt their ability to feel emotions or communicate with people.

Sheba [lioness] had been so fond of her brother that when he died, she had led George to the spot, watched him bury Suleiman [her brother], and then sat on the grave for days, refusing to leave him alone. (page 112)

He also has an understanding of human society and mores and how they affect the animal world that comes through abundantly clearly:

By pushing up the price of oil, Sheikh Yamani and his cohorts had multiplied the Yemeni GDP sevenfold. A rhino-horn dagger is a symbol of manhood in Yemen, so an entire species was all but wiped out in order that a load of newly oil-rich Yemenis could have fancy dagger handles. (page 76)

When he writes of the poachers and big game hunters fighting with the environmentalists for control of the land, I was aghast at the methods both groups used.  They often would kill a big cat, cut off its head and paws, then skin it and leave it right in the environmentalists’ path.  This level of cold-heartedness and cruelty baffles me.  Although one could possibly argue that the poachers saw this atrocity as the only way out of poverty, there is zero excuse for the wealthy, white big game hunters who just callously view it as sport.

I suppose some people may see Tony’s and other western people’s work in Africa for the animals as neocolonialist.  I don’t see it that way at all.  Tony by nature of his upbringing had the wealthy connections needed to fund projects working with the animals.  When Kenya and Tanzania were caught up in civil wars and reestablishing their nations, even wealthy Africans would most likely donate that money toward people, not animals.  Plus, Tony’s work has provided stable employment to Tanzanians and Kenyans for over 20 years, as well as bringing in more tourism.  Tony himself points out that a lot of the big animals were gone due to colonial big game hunters, and he views his work as a sort of retribution for the colonial period.  I perhaps wouldn’t take it that far, but I do see his point.

One thing I will say, though, is I do view it very hypocritical that Tony sends his own children away to a wealthy boarding school in Kenya rather then sending them to the school located in the park in Tanzania that his trust set up and runs.  If it’s good enough for the Tanzanian kids, why isn’t it good enough for his own?  That stung of elitism to me.

Although the book can be slow-moving at times, the good bits make up for it.  Tony and his work for animal rights are inspirational.  His life shows how much one person can accomplish by taking it one step at a time.

I pulled myself together and thought about what George would do. Of course I knew already. George would put his head down and keep going, one step at a time. It was the way he approached everything. (page 184)

Overall, I recommend this memoir to nonfiction lovers with a passion for Africa, environmentalism, or animal rights.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Friday Fun! (Thoughts on Community and Environment)

January 14, 2011 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Boston got hit with yet another blizzard, although the real record-breaker was that 49 of the 50 states had snow on the same day (including Hawaii).  The one without?  Florida.  I spent my Wednesday morning shoveling about a foot and a half of snow off of my building’s steps and sidewalk.  Another member of the building did the afternoon shoveling.  It was actually really lovely getting a workout in outside in the snow while listening to an audiobook on my iPod.  🙂  Of course, the afternoon was spent alternating between reading and craft projects.

My friends Nina and E and I have been spending a lot of time lately discussing big questions.  Maybe it’s because we all went to Brandeis where you were more likely to find huge groups of people discussing existential questions than playing Beirut.  Maybe it’s just the kind of people we are.  Anyway.  Nina is currently on a kibbutz in Israel, and she emailed me asking me what I think makes a community.  I know a lot of people believe it’s your family or your religion or nationality or who lives in proximity to you, but that’s not how I make my community.  I think the ideal community is a group of people who happen to meet in whatever way and who love and support each other unconditionally.  You should be able to trust your community to support you and be there for you no matter how you fuck up or what choices you make.  I’m incredibly grateful to have found that with my current groups of friends.  It’s not an easy thing to find, but I think it’s what works.  I’m a big proponent of creating your own family and often talk with various friends about how awesome it would be to one day all live together on a big plot of land.  A gal can dream, can’t she?

Meanwhile, E and I have been discussing the environment a lot.  I’ve always considered myself a bit of an environmentalist, but I’m continually moving even further in that direction.  To put it bluntly, the earth doesn’t belong to humans.  The earth is its own thing, and if we don’t straighten up, we’re gonna kill ourselves off.  You think the earth cares if we die?  Nope.  The earth will keep on doing its thing and other creatures will take over.  Kind of like how we took over from the dinosaurs.  Still though.  The earth isn’t our.  It belongs to all creatures, and it honestly disgusts me the way humans have been ruining it, not only for future generations, but for current creatures of other species.  So what is a gal to do?  How can I function within modern society and make the least impact?  As I become increasingly aware, I strive every day to make less impact to the best of my abilities.  I keep my heat turned down incredibly low not just for my electric bill, but to make less of an impact on earth.  I’m a vegetarian and am striving to slowly cut down and maybe eventually eliminate dairy from my diet.  I’ve already decided that I’d rather adopt than have children of my own.  Yet every week when I bring out my recycling, I’m shocked that one person has created so much waste.  It’s mind-boggling.

I guess being out of grad school has given me more time to contemplate these core values.  Community.  Environmentalism.  Maybe I’m still a bit more idealistic than I thought I was.  I thought I’d entirely reverted to pessimism and giving up on idealism, but that may not be the case after all.

Please Help the Gulf Animals

My lovely readers, I’m sure no matter where in the world you come to my blog from, you’ve heard about the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  I don’t like to get into politics/big business/whatever, but I am a staunch advocate for animals.  These innocent creatures never use oil in their day to day lives.  They don’t go around creating genocides.  They are less evolved than us and deserve our protection and admiration as the beautiful creatures they are.

This is what the oil spill has done to them:

A devastatingly oil-covered bird in the Gulf of Mexico.

AP Photographer Charlie Riedel's photo of an oil-covered bird as found on Boston.com.

The National Wildlife Federation is working tirelessly to save these innocent beings, or at least to alleviate their suffering.  It’s a huge, unexpected responsibility, and they need all the help they can get.

I beseech you to please go to the National Wildlife Federation’s oil spill donation website and donate today.  Any amount helps.

We caused this–human beings–and my heart weeps for them.  Even if you normally wouldn’t donate to animal or environmental causes, please consider doing so today, particularly if you find my blog a helpful or enjoyable part of your week.  You could give me no nicer gift.

Thank you.