The poison paradox

The poison paradox 
John Timbrell 
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press  | 2005 | 352pp | ?19.99 (HB) | ISBN 0192804952  
Reviewed by Merlin Fox 

The notion that manmade compounds are dangerous, while anything natural is safe, is completely false. Without proper preparation, consuming a staple food such as cassava or a delicacy like the puffer fish can be fatal. Furthermore, certain recognised poisonous compounds, such as dioxins, can enhance the detoxification of other poisons. 

Having published several textbooks on toxicology, John Timbrell has written a book which is accessible to a wide readership. Unfortunately, at times this book appears too reminiscent of a textbook. Glossary words are highlighted in the text, and parenthetic speech is excessive at times. Yet, this approach lends a deserved power to the descriptions of the poisons and remains stimulating to the reader. 

After giving a general background on poisons, Timbrell explains how they are taken into the body and the subsequent effects they may produce. This gives the reader a basic grounding in toxicology and physiology which some may find too technical but which is essential to help appreciate the fine balance between life and death that the poisons give. 

Subsequent chapters examine specific groups of chemicals, which at times is repetitive. Throughout the book, clearly-explained case studies dispense with the media hype that has traditionally surrounded them and demonstrate how risks can be reduced by following a rational and scientific approach. 

Anyone reading this book will find something that surprises them. A personal interest in the dark art of poisoning is not essential, since Timbrell demonstrates how our exposure to potentially lethal compounds is unavoidable. Whether we treat the poisons as friend or foe is down to us.