A Chemist Exposes Dangerous Chemicals

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Most of my colleagues in lab coats don’t think much about the effects that their products have on the rest of the world. Very few end up devoting their lives to education and prevention as I have.

—Monona Rossol


Title: Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia Is Making Lab Rats of Us All

Author:  Monona Rossol

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

Publication date: October 2015

Price: E-book, 210 pages

Monona Rossol is a chemist and “industrial hygienist” who is a frequent contributor to various media outlets in the New York area. Loosely defined, an industrial hygienist is a scientist dedicated to protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities. Health and safety hazards cover a wide range of chemical, physical, biological, and ergonomic stressors.

Ms. Rossol describes herself in the preface of her book Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia Is Making Lab Rats of Us All: “I’m a chemist, but I don’t make my living mixing chemicals for a multinational company. Most of my colleagues in lab coats don’t think much about the effects that their products have on the rest of the world. Very few end up devoting their lives to education and prevention as I have.”

Weighing in at a slender 210 pages, Pick Your Poison is well written and chock-full of information, which is dispensed in an enjoyable format of 13 reader-friendly chapters. And although Ms. Rossol’s tone is wry and entertaining, her fact-filled treatise exposes the truth, among other things, about government labeling and product testing, including why terms such as “nontoxic,” “hypoallergenic,” and “U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved” can be misleading. However, Ms. Rossol’s book will also provoke challenges from the chemical industry and other concerned parties, when she starts linking purported increased rates of cancer, autism, obesity, and asthma to chemical exposures.

Tales of Chemical Mishaps and Exploitation

The trial-and-error history of product development has had many unfortunate episodes, during which unwitting workers and consumers have been victimized by ignorance and sometime pure avarice. The history of chemical mishaps is interesting and sets the stage for Ms. Rossol’s examination of the current state of how “our mad dash to chemical utopia is making lab rats of us all.”

For example, the author focuses on the entrepreneurial use of the discovery of radium to show how “companies can profit by harming both consumers and their workers.” She falls back to 1917 and the U.S. Radium Corporation’s attempt at creating a novel product by mixing radium with a little glue to make a paint that glowed in the dark. The company dubbed it “Undark” and decided to use the radium mixture to make watch and instrument dials that glowed in the dark. Big contracts with the military followed, and then ordinary citizens began clamoring for a wide array of glow-in-the-dark products.

However, after 3 years of huge profits at U.S. Radium, it became clear that something was clearly wrong with the dial painters, who were mostly women. “The women were suffering from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, a condition now known as ‘radium jaw.’ However, workers were told that the paints were nontoxic, and they believed their superiors…. U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies began a campaign of disinformation and bogus tests,” writes Ms. Rossol.

Readers are aware of worker-consumer exploitation tales; the big one of course is the asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma. And while revisiting previous chemical-related injustices makes for compelling human-interest stories, Ms. Rossol spends a tad too much time in the past, using phrases such as “What followed was the same sickening scenario that repeatedly plays out in almost every health workers dispute,” which gives her serious book an unnecessarily histrionic tone.

Chemical Exposure and Cancer

Naturally, readers of The ASCO Post will be on the lookout for the inevitable link between chemical exposure and cancer. This is very difficult territory, because emotions often trump science, no more so than when the World Trade Centers were destroyed on 9/11. First responders and those working on the subsequent cleanup were exposed to thousands of tons of toxic debris, which consisted of more than 2,500 contaminants, many of which were known carcinogens.

In 2006, several mainstream news publications began connecting the dots between first responders and cancer incidence. In the lay public’s mind, it made sense, and the public wanted these brave people compensated. However, it is impossible to draw a corollary between this type of toxic exposure and pancreatic or colon cancer. The sad reality is that the oncogenic process had most likely begun in the people who were eventually diagnosed with cancer. As Donald Berry, MD, the noted statistician from MD Anderson Cancer Center, put it in an article in The ASCO Post: “A person watching the cleanup on TV in Houston is about as likely to develop cancer as someone working at Ground Zero.”

When Ms. Rossol ventures into this thorny territory, she drops the ball, and her discussions on cancer prove the weakest part of her otherwise solid book. For instance, she cited a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that monitored 212 chemicals appearing in the blood and serum of 2,500 human subjects. However, she never gives the results of the study. Instead she writes: “The data do not mean that these chemicals cause disease, only that people are carrying low levels of theses chemicals in their bodies.”

In a leap of faith, she segues into a bankrupt line of reasoning. “Yet we humans are perhaps showing the effects without really understanding the cause…. The high rates of cancer just might be related. Consider the American Cancer Society estimates that in the United States, 40.84% of us will develop cancer in our lifetime. That’s roughly two in every five.” Besides the muddy logic, she should remember that cancer is largely an age-related disease. The cancer incidence in Somalia may not be alarming, because the life expectancy is about 45 years. Ms. Rossol makes two more stabs at linking toxic exposure to cancer, with similar clumsy results. However, once she puts cancer aside, she picks up steam, and the book regains its footing.

Author at Her Best

The author is at her best when exploring the real dangers of common household chemicals and appliances, such as air filters. In this chapter, she runs down the list of air filters and exposes the bogus promises made about their health benefits.

She also gives a good explanation about how the Obama administration has tried to balance public safety with corporate sovereignty. Namely, she turns to the Toxic Substances Act, which was essentially designed to protect corporate trade secrets. To his credit, President Obama has reformed the Act, making it more transparent and safer for the American public. Ms. Rossol does a good job elucidating complex policy issues and epidemiology, not an easy task.

Besides a few missteps, Pick Your Poison is a sturdy, informative read. We live in a world filled with chemicals; it’s good to know what they do. This book is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post who read the small print on labels before buying and using a product.  ■