Venomous earth: how arsenic caused the world's worst mass poisoning

Venomous earth: how arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning 
Andrew Meharg 
Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan | 2005 | 192pp | ?16.99 (HB) | ISBN 1403944997 
Reviewed by Andrew Gault

The consumption of arsenic-rich groundwaters across Bangladesh over the past 20 years has led to a situation described as ’the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’. Given the scale of the catastrophe it is surprising that so few of the public are aware of it, which makes Meharg’s Venomous Earth so timely. 

The opening chapters document the events, over the past few decades, that gave rise to the arsenic calamity in the Bengal delta. They also discuss the geochemical triggers thought to be responsible for the natural occurrence of high-arsenic groundwaters. 


Following this, the book deviates from the present to describe the relationship between mankind and arsenic throughout history, from its use in the weaponry of Bronze Age civilisations to the murky world of alchemy and the contribution of arsenic research to the emergence of chemistry as a discipline. The ramifications of arsenic chemistry upon wider society, such as the application of colourful arsenic-bearing pigments in wallpapers and their harmful effects on Victorian Britain, are well presented. The role of arsenic as an intended poison is also interestingly explored. 

The closing two chapters return to the crisis in Bangladesh, comparing it with other parts of the world dealing with arsenic water quality problems, and consider the enormous task of remedying the situation. 

For a book that aims to communicate ’how arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning’, it is a little disappointing that only one third of its text deals directly with the disaster in the Bengal delta. Although clearly well researched, the style of writing is also a little too academic in places for a book aimed at the popular science audience. Nevertheless, there is still much to praise in a book that will hopefully stimulate greater awareness of this tragedy.