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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: 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: Nano House: Innovations for Small Dwellings by Phyllis Richardson

January 16, 2012 8 comments

Small house with porch and pergola.Summary:
A nano house is a super-small house, generally between 300 and under 1,000 square feet.  This book shows off nano houses from all over the world with different goals in mind, from an eco-friendly retreat that blends in with the surroundings to pod buildings that could be assembled into space-saving towers in the city to more traditional house boats.  One goal of all the houses remains the same.  How little space can one person or family take up to make the smallest impact on the environment?

Review:
I became fascinated with nano houses after stumbling across a few on the internet.  One that sticks out in my mind is a couple that built theirs together and had a blog about it.  There was another one in Australia that the woman made from plastic bottles and dirt.  The whole concept was just so….refreshing.  A small space that is uniquely you (or your family) that fits in just right with your surroundings.  So when I found out about a book coming out collecting a bunch of these houses together, I put myself on the hold list at the library immediately.  I wanted to know more details about building these remarkable little houses and the kind of people who are choosing them.  Unfortunately, this book missed the entire soul of the blogs and blurbs I’d found online.

Instead of seeking out individuals and families who designed and built their homes themselves, the houses here were all made by architectural firms or design students.  If you’ve ever met that snotty whoever in the bar who just can’t stop talking about his high-class ideas for making the whole world more up to his par, then you know the vibe this book sends off in waves.  It’s not enough to make a small, livable house with minor impact, no, they must use this new, experimental flooring or make the house look like a storage shed or design their own perfectly circular furniture or give a speech about the revolutionary concept of having a yard on the roof of your houseboat.  Um, newsflash, pretty sure I came up with that idea when I was 5.

Instead of interviewing the people who live in these houses, the author talks about what the houses are like and why they are built.  We get to hear nothing about actually *living* in a nano house.  Indeed, some of the houses were simply made for design contests or as student projects with no intention of anyone living in them at all, which seems to be the OPPOSITE of environmentally friendly if you ask me.

In fact, the whole book reads like greenwashing.  Oh, they say anyone can afford to buy this house or live there, but in fact it’s the “eccentric” wealthy who own these houses as second homes or vacation homes or a place to stick guests so they aren’t in the main house….but it’s environmentally friendly, so it’s all cool.  What I wanted to see was game changers.  Ordinary people who chose to make their own home their own way.  What I got instead was annoying architectural design students and getaways for the wealthy.  Plus, there are not nearly enough pictures of the houses to get a good idea of what they are actually like, and any floor plans are printed so small that they are impossible to read.

Overall, this book has a great title, but is a huge disappointment.  It reads like a bunch of wealthy people patting each other on the back at a party at the Ritz, missing the entire soul of the environmental movement.

2 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.

Book Review: The Year of the Flood By Margaret Atwood

October 19, 2009 14 comments

covertheyearofthefloodSummary:
Toby, a spa-worker, and Ren, an exotic dancer and prostitute, have both survived the  waterless flood–a global pandemic that has killed almost all of humanity.  They also both used to live with The Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that constantly warned of the impending apocalypse.  A series of flashbacks tells how they survived the pandemic while the question of what to do now that the pandemic is mostly over looms large in their lives.

Review:
Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors.  I love dystopian books, and she has an incredible talent for taking the current worries and news items and turning them into a near-future dystopia.  Toby’s and Ren’s world prior to the waterless flood isn’t anything to be happy about.  Slums dominate.  Gangs run rampant.  The world is now run by a giant evil corporation (which is somehow worse than a giant evil government? *shrugs*).  It’s really the little things that makes this future world believable.  Kids wear bracelets that have live mini jellyfish in them.  Species have been spliced together to make new, more usable ones, such as the Mo’Hair–a sheep whose wool makes perfect fake hair for women.  The people who don’t live in slums live in corporation-run compounds where everything they do is monitored. What makes this dystopia wonderful is how plausible it all seems.

Really, though, all of these dystopian features are just a back-drop for the real stories.  Toby spends years hiding with The Gardeners and running because one man, Blanco, decided he owned her upon having slept with her.  When Toby defied him, he vowed to kill her.  He haunts her life for years on end.  Similarly, Ren falls in love with a boy in highschool who breaks her heart yet somehow keeps coming back into her life and repeating the damage.

This is a book about mistakes.  About how thinking we own the Earth and its creatures could cause our own demise.  About how sleeping with the wrong man just once can haunt you for years.  About how loving the wrong man can hurt you for years.

This is what I love about Atwood.  She has such wonderful insight into what it is to be a woman.  Insight into what haunts women’s dreams.  When women talk about what scares them, it isn’t nuclear war–it’s the man in the dark alley who will grab her and rape her and never leave her alone.  Toby’s Blanco is the embodiment of this fear.  She sees him around every corner.  She’s afraid to go visit a neighbor because he might find her on the street walking there.  Setting this fear in an other world makes it easier for female readers to take a step back and really see the situation for what it is.  Yes, he’s a strong, frightening man, but Toby let him disempower her by simply fearing him for years.  This is what Atwood does well.

The pandemic, however, is not done so well.  Too many questions are left.  Where did the pandemic come from?  Does it work quickly or slowly?  Some characters seem to explode blood immediately upon infection, whereas others wander around with just a fever infecting others.

Similarly, the reader is left with no clear idea as to how long it has been since the pandemic started.  On the one hand it seems like a month or two.  On the other hand, the stockpiles of food The Gardeners made run out quite early, and that just doesn’t mesh given how much attention they gave to them prior to the pandemic.

I also found the end of the book extremely dissatisfying.  It leaves the reader with way too many unanswered questions.  In fact, it feels completely abrupt.  Almost like Atwood was running out of time for her book deadline so just decided “ok, we’ll end there.”  I know dystopian novels like to leave a few unanswered questions, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave this many unanswered.

The Year of the Flood sets up a believable dystopia that sucks the reader in and has her reconsidering all of her life perceptions.  Unfortunately, the ending lets the reader down.  I think it’s still worth the read, because it is enjoyable for the majority of the book, and I am still pondering issues it raised days later.  If you’re into the environmental movement or women’s issues, you will enjoy this book–just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the ending leaves you throwing the book across the room. 😉

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Environmentalism’s Impact on Books

Environmentalists have their good points and bad points, just like any activist group.  I agree with some of their points and disagree with others.  However, there seems to be the stirrings of a new target for environmentalists–new books.  A blog example is this post detailing how you should only buy used books whenever possible as studies show they are better for the environment.  Then there’s the new Netflix-style business called BookSwim, which claims that it’s more environmentally friendly to have their stock of “rentable” books shipped to you in recycled packing materials than it is to buy new books.

What these people seem to be missing is that if people stop buying new books, at some point there won’t be any more new books being published.  It is important that avid readers support the publishing of new books by currently writing authors, as well as the classics.  If the publishing industry encounters a distinct lack in demand for their product, they aren’t going to make it anymore!  Environmentalists need to grasp the fact that we’re talking about books here.  Literacy.  Education.  Possessing an educated public.  That’s a bit more important than a few trees in the rainforest.  They really need to set their sights on something else.  I’m all behind finding alternative energy sources, but we need books to keep being published.

Another point that ye olde BookSwim seems to miss is the low environmental impact of borrowing books from your local public library.  I know in rural areas people have to drive there, but it is often possible to bike or walk.  No books are being shipped, plus you get the chance to meet and encounter people from your neighborhood at the library.  Not to mention the fact that the library is free.  What BookSwim cites as its most popular plan costs $29.97 a month.  They heavily push the idea of no late fees and no due date, but let’s consider this for a moment.  The most popular plan is 7 books at a time, send back 3 and hold 4.  A book is not a movie.  A movie may generally be watched in 1 1/2 to 2 hours, which leads to a rapid turnover.  This is part of what makes Netflix worth the money.  Even the most avid reader generally takes more than 2 hours to finish reading a book.  My friends who read the most avidly finish around 10 books a month.  That means they would have paid $3 a book.  Most libraries charge 10 cents a day for a late book, and allow you to have it for anywhere from a month to two months.  You would have to keep the book an extra 30 days in order for the late fees to equate the cost of the book from BookSwim.  Anybody with half a brain can see that BookSwim isn’t worth the money.  One of the major selling points of BookSwim is the ability to take as long as you want to read a book, but if you do that then you won’t be getting your money’s worth.

Come on, people.  Use your heads.  Utilize your local public library for older books or books you know you will only want to read once, and buy new books from your local independent bookstore to support the future of the book industry.  It is really not that complicated.  Environmentalists should stick to their solar panels.