The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes

The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes

The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes

The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes


Every day we are surrounded by chemicals that are potentially harmful. Some of these we take intentionally in the form of drugs; some we take unknowingly through the food we eat, and the environment around us.

John Timbrell explores what makes particular chemicals harmful, what their effects are, and how we can test for them. He examines drugs such as Paracetamol and what it does to the body; Ricin, the most toxic substance known to man; Paraquat, a widely available weedkiller; and how the puffer fish, eaten as a delicacy in Japan, can kill. Using case studies from all around the world, such as the Spanish Oil syndrome which made over 20,000 people ill in Madrid, Timbrell uncovers the facts behind chemical scares. He shows how, with a rational, scientific, and balanced approach, risks can be assessed and managed safely.


To appreciate the dangers and the risks from chemicals of all kinds it is necessary to understand how, when and why they are toxic. This falls within the field of toxicology and is what this book is all about.

I was encouraged to write the book by Dr John Emsley, who is well known for his popular science books on the chemical sciences. He had reviewed my introductory textbook on toxicology and suggested it might be the basis for a popular science book written for the general public. That is what I have tried to produce.

I have approached the task of writing this book by using examples known to me through my teaching and research. The examples have been chosen to illustrate particular points and principles or because they are, I think, interesting stories.

However, the book is not one to consult for a review of the hazards of a particular drug or pesticide or industrial chemical. Such a book, covering all of the possible chemicals to which we might be exposed would be a reference text in many volumes and would be a lifetime's work to produce and yet probably out of date when it arrived!

This book is also not yet another attempt to worry people unnecessarily about the potential chemical dangers around them, but neither will it suggest that every chemical is perfectly safe.

I hope by the end of this book that you, the reader, will have a better understanding of these things and so can more easily appreciate the often conflicting and unsettling information with which we are all increasingly assailed. It is my belief that members of the public need objective, scientific information in order to make up their own minds and balance the risks with the benefits.

Using this book

Although I have tried to keep jargon and technical terms to a minimum, they are at times necessary for proper explanation. So throughout the book if not explained at the point of first use, such words will be highlighted in bold. This means the word will be explained in the glossary at the end. More detailed explanations of certain points are given in boxes in the text.

Finally I must acknowledge the help of a number of people. Firstly . . .

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