For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.


The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

42 replies
  1. 1
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    “Chemical Ignorance”

    Boy, there is a lot of that going around.

  2. 2
    wenchacha says:

    My husband was really impressed (as was I) with her on the PBS piece. It was a fascinating program. How great to have bright friends!

  3. 3
    Spirula says:

    Saw it Great show.
    I took a graduate entomology course taught by her dad at UGA (decades ago). He was an odd but engaging professor. I’ll never forget he used to wear black leather shorts (or lederhosen?) sometimes to class. Why? No idea.

  4. 4
    raven says:

    @Spirula: Another Dawg! Dang, she was born in Urbana too! Probably Mercy Hospital just like me!

  5. 5
    Roger Moore says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:
    It’s not just that ordinary people don’t know enough about chemicals. It’s that very few of the chemicals we encounter in everyday life have been thoroughly investigated. If you look at the Safety Data Sheet for 4-methylhexane methanol, there are more unknowns than answers, and that’s sadly typical. For most of the chemicals out there, the best safety information we have is an educated guess. The ones for which we do have extensive safety information tend to be ones that were intended to be toxic (e.g. pesticides, chemical warfare agents) and ones where we discovered the danger the bad way and investigated once we knew there was something worth investigating.

    The rule of thumb seems to be that we assume chemicals behave similarly to other, chemically related things. Unless a chemical is part of a class that’s been shown to be dangerous, it’s up to the people questioning its safety to prove it’s dangerous, not the people trying to use it to show it’s safe.

  6. 6
    cmm says:

    I am stuck in a training class or I would so be there. Her book about poisons and toxicology was fantastic. If you are able, you should totally listen in on this

  7. 7
    Spirula says:

    @raven: Yup. However, now working for that Gat*r nation. But still a Dawg. A short while ago, one of my Gat*r friends at a local pub was riffing on me about the Dawgs lackluster season. My response was “Well, which team got into a bowl game?” For some reason he changed the subject.

  8. 8
    raven says:

    Some of my pals at UGA entomology helped me with my flesh eating beetles project!

  9. 9
    the Conster says:

    Loved that PBS show – the pix of the girls with radium poisoning broke my heart. In that case it was ignorance, but the part about the leaded gasoline just goes to show how poisoning all of us is a feature, not a bug for the jerb creators.

  10. 10
    raven says:

    @Spirula: They pounded us on the hardwood last night! You’re not a Blind Pig are you?

  11. 11
    Spirula says:

    @Roger Moore: New organic compounds are synthesized at a far greater rate than toxicology network could keep up with. But out into the environment they go. I mean, the free market will sort it all out don’t you know.

  12. 12
    Tommy says:

    @Spirula: Odd is kind of neat. Where I went to school/college a professor used to dress up in period pieces to come to class. He filled up auditoriums. His name was T. Harry Williams. There was a line out of his classroom. Thinking maybe that Puzlier Prize or two didn’t hurt.

  13. 13
    Spirula says:

    @raven: I was referring to the sacred realm of football ( the “a short while ago” was too vague I guess). But I did not see the BB game as ESPN3 did not carry it. And I have the flu so didn’t go to the local establishment to watch it.
    So you used Dermestidae in your work? Was it forensic in nature or just to get rid of irritating neighbors?

  14. 14
    Spirula says:

    @Tommy: Yeah, odd is kind of a hallmark of academia. Often it works well. And Dr. Blum was a very good instructor. Guy knew of which he spoke.

  15. 15
    Pogonip says:

    I really enjoyed Love at Goon Park. I haven’t been able to find her other out-of-print books.

  16. 16
    raven says:

    @Spirula: I knew what you were talking about. I caught a big ass redfish over in Seagrove last year and I skelatonized the head.. I had no idea what I was doing and I got help from them and the Georgia Museum of Natural History folks. Had to cultivate the colony for a couple of months and then let her rip. It was fun.

  17. 17
    raven says:

    @Spirula: There was a Sanscrit prof at Illinois in the early 70’s that NEVER wore shoes no matter how much snow or how cold it got.

  18. 18
    Tommy says:

    @raven: LOL. I went to Western Illinois as an undergrad. I will put that school against any school. Part of the Illinois system. But kind of a place off by itself. A town of 30,000 with a school of 18,000. You could be a little “off” there and nobody seemed to care.I kind of liked this.I could totally see a teacher not wearing shoes. I had teachers do a lot of bizarre shit.

  19. 19
    Spirula says:

    @raven: That is nice. Are you going to try to articulate it? I have shark (jaw), gar and deer skulls that have all had a similar treatment (found naturally, not killed). The gar is missing some small bones, but the other two are complete. Only the shark is articulated, but that is only because I knew someone who specialized in them. The deer…well I don’t want to drill and wire the mandibles.

  20. 20
    Tommy says:

    You know I was looking ….

    I had mentioned here my love for REM. It got me thinking of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I think it was 1992. The Varsity in Baton Rouge. This happened.

    The only thing that is as neat as this was seeing a band known as Cowboy Mouth play for free in an alley.

    The last time I was at Jazz Fest they closed it. Around 250,000 folks ….

  21. 21
    Elizabelle says:

    You lucky dog!

    Loved the PBS show, saw it twice. Deborah is a fabulous writer, and a good interview too.

    Have to be out and about. Oh no! Can I catch a podcast later? Would love to hear your show.

  22. 22
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Elizabelle: Yup. podcast will be available at the same place as the live show; should be up by tomorrow.

  23. 23
    beltane says:

    @the Conster: It started out as ignorance, but then in true Job Creator fashion the company’s management claimed that the radium paint was safe and that the employees died because they were already ill to begin with, hired by the company as a form of tender-hearted charity.

  24. 24
    Elizabelle says:

    @Tom Levenson:


    Am heading out canvassing for Tuesday’s special election to replace Attorney General Mark Herring. Virginia state senate campaign.

    Jennifer Wexton was endorsed by the WaPost today. She’s up against the Tea Partier Republican candidate and a third candidate, a “former” Republican running as an independent.

    DC area folks: come out and volunteer! Lots of canvassing through Election Day. Absentee in person (“early”) voting through Saturday.

    Phone banks too. In Arlington and Fairfax and convenient locations.

    [Fairfax County Democratic Committee website w info on volunteering.]

  25. 25
    Roger Moore says:

    In fairness, assuming that stuff will behave like closely related molecules is usually a decent assumption. The problem is that there are so many new compounds out there that it only takes a tiny fraction of them being problematic to cause serious problems. It would be nice if we would at least test everything that’s proposed to go into food and cosmetics- including substances applied to growing plants and animals that might wind up in food made from them- before letting anything on the market.

  26. 26
    raven says:

    @Spirula: Nah, it’s in a shadow box on the mantle under the big ass yellowfin (replica). I caught on Maui.

  27. 27
    Mnemosyne says:

    So none of the front-pagers have tackled this “the government can control your computer with radio waves!” story yet. I’ll ask the science-minded on this thread, is it as bullshitty as it sounds?

  28. 28
    sharl says:

    @Roger Moore: Yes, this exactly. Having looked at many dozens of Material Safe Data Sheets (MSDSs) over the years, I was grimly entertained to see folks new to this note how often “Not Available” was entered in the spaces for chemical, physical, health and safety properties.

    And just to make it more interesting – at least for low-cost commodity items (e.g., paints/coatings, industrial cleaners and surface treatment concoctions) – formulations are increasingly using raw materials imported from lower-cost foreign sources, where they don’t suffer under the pesky regulatory burdens that a hand-wringing Nanny State would otherwise impose. So we get further mystery, and possibly adventure, along with our reduced cost stuff.


  29. 29
  30. 30
    Roger Moore says:

    They’ve just officially changed from MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) to SDS (Safety Data Sheet). Those evil internationalists have stepped in and forced us to change to a standardized format with uniform ways of indicating hazards. The horror! The horror!

  31. 31
  32. 32
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Roger Moore: That idea fails in so many ways, sorry. Carbon monoxide versus carbon dioxide, ethylmercury versus methylmercury, heck ethanol versus methanol (blind drunk versus drunk then blind…). Animal testing is frowned upon these days as it can require the lab technicians to have to check under their cars for bombs in the morning and anyway some things like drugs can have bad effects in human beings while being soup and nuts for lab animals (thalidomide was one such case, thoroughly lab-tested before it was released for use in humans).

    LD50 testing is a good basic measure, if it only takes an eyedropper of Compound X to polish off 50 percent of a cage of lab rats in short order then it’s probably going to go on the “don’t drink this!” list. Apart from that it’s a question of SCIENCE!, looking for adverse effects and publishing them with, hopefully a careful watch for the loons who try and fake the data to support their cause (such as the biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini).

  33. 33
    sharl says:

    @Roger Moore: Ah, I’ve been seeing that more often, but didn’t realize it was some kind of official dealio.
    Shorter and more succinct works for me! (even if it will take some getting used to)

  34. 34
    MaryRC says:

    @beltane:Not only that, but the company (US Radium) claimed that the disease that the women suffered from was syphilis … just to carry blame-the-victim a little further.

    That PBS program was amazing and rather scary too, in that the development of techniques and laws to protect consumers and workers from toxins seems to have rested on the shoulders of a very few forward-thinking people. If Charles Norris hadn’t been rich enough in his own right not to have to worry about job security, this might have been a different story.

  35. 35
    Roger Moore says:

    @Robert Sneddon:

    That idea fails in so many ways, sorry. Carbon monoxide versus carbon dioxide, ethylmercury versus methylmercury, heck ethanol versus methanol (blind drunk versus drunk then blind…).

    A) It works better than you think. Carbon monoxide is more like cyanide than like carbon dioxide (CO and CN- are isoelectronic and have similar bad effects), and the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury are quantitative, not qualitative. The worst cases are generally for the kind of thing you highlighted, especially ethyl vs. methyl groups; methyl compounds might be better thought of as a special case rather than the shortest primary aliphatic group. For larger compounds where you’re making a 1 carbon change, the difference is usually much smaller.

    B) What else are you going to do? We can’t test absolutely everything to the extent we’d like, so we need some kind of quick and dirty approach to figure out what’s likely to be pretty OK and what’s likely to be really nasty. Even if you’re going to test, having a first-order guess about how toxic something is will be important for initial dosing.

    That said, I think there’s a big difference between something that’s going into the environment vs. something that’s going into articles for direct human use, and the standards for testing should be different. The big methylcyclohexane methanol spill in WVa is unpleasant and inconvenient, but it doesn’t appear to be a catastrophe on the scale of a lot of drug screw-ups.

    anyway some things like drugs can have bad effects in human beings while being soup and nuts for lab animals

    And the reverse is also true. There are some things that are really bad for some animals but just fine for people. There was a long-term scare about erucic acid in mustard and rape seed oil because it’s bad for rats but turns out to be no big deal for humans.

  36. 36
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    EDITED to put in an errant apostrophe, because FSM forbid that anything I actually type correctly will show up the way I intended, because FYWP and FYAC, but leave out one little apostrophe….

    Tom, I’m reposting this comment from John’s thread one floor up, as it is somewhat more on-topic here. If you haven’t seen this elsewhere, I commend it to your attention.

    A small sample:

    To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you.  To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who’d never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource—suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness.  To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of….

    To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us.  To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.

    To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated.  To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don’t just leave, don’t just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we’d all suddenly recognize something that hadn’t been on our radar until now. 

    To hell with the superior attitude one so often encounters in these conversations, and usually from people who have no idea about the complexity and the long history at work in it.  To hell with the person I met during my PhD work who, within ten seconds of finding out I was from West Virginia, congratulated me on being able to read….

    Whole thing is well worth reading.

  37. 37
    sharl says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: That WAS well worth reading. Thanks for the link.
    We could use a new Joe Bageant to speak about and for those stubborn folks in the hills-n-hollers – pains-in-the-ass though they can be – and that guy could be on the short list of candidates.

  38. 38
    Yatsuno says:

    @Tommy: Sounds a lot like Pullman. Without the student it’s about 12,000, then the population swell when 25,000 undergrads come back from summer break. Truth be told, if I could manage it I’d move back in a heartbeat. It was a great little place.

  39. 39
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Roger Moore: “What else are you going to do? We can’t test absolutely everything to the extent we’d like, so we need some kind of quick and dirty approach to figure out what’s likely to be pretty OK and what’s likely to be really nasty. Even if you’re going to test, having a first-order guess about how toxic something is will be important for initial dosing.”

    I had a long and ultimately fruitless argument with someone who was wrong on the internet about thiomersal and its perils. Pointing out that the EVULL mercury atom in thiomersal was tightly bound to an ethyl group and ethylmercury is pretty innocuous and gets expelled from the system quite quickly didn’t help. Telling him that thiomersal had been in widespread use as a very effective vaccine preservative and fungicide for over eighty years without ill effects cut no ice. He wanted it banned, stricken from the history books and salt sown upon the ground because of the mercury atom it contained. Even telling him it was used much less frequently than it had been, replaced by modern (expensive in-patent) preservatives that were, according to some reports, less effective didn’t help.

    If some drug or chemical is going to have a widespread use then it is going to be tested up the wazoo (in the West at least). Other stuff not so much, or in some cases it may be impossible — measuring the LD50 figure for ingestion of octonitrocubane is not going to happen, at least in this universe. If someone ever tries I want to see the Youtube.

  40. 40
    qwerty42 says:

    Wow. Followed the link just to take a quick look and watched the entire thing. Good story, nicely done. The presence of (and seeming indifference about) so many poisons in everyday life including so many absurd things was disturbing (radium in cosmetics?). And worker safety! It must have been a Galtian paradise. Of course, now we have better chemicals to fear, so … Newsreel footage of NYC in the 20’s was interesting as they look to have gotten pics of the Manhattan elevated lines. Thanks for the Link, Tom.

  41. 41
    slippytoad says:


    Having read that, I feel some but not much sympathy for West Virginia — this is the government they voted into power, and it doesn’t do anything to look after their drinking water.

    Rather than whining about it, it’s time to stop electing corrupt industry whores to office, everywhere, and start demanding businesses clean up their own mess AND cover the expense.

    Honestly, I’m downriver from all that, and what I’d like to do is find the CEO of Freedom Industries and force him to down a flask of that yellow bathtub water I saw posted on Twitter the other day. Or, actually just dump it in his swimming pool, and all over his yard and house, and dare the son of a bitch to sue me.

  42. 42
    Birthmarker says:

    I’ve read and enjoyed Poisoner’s Handbook, and will check out her other offerings!

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