Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hypochondriacs Beware: A Review of Monona Rossol's Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia Is Making Lab Rats of Us All

Title: Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All
Author: Monona Rossol
Edition: Hardcover (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011)
Pages: 241
How I Came By This Book: This was on the top shelf of my library's rotating collection and the cover caught my attention right away.

About the Author: Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist, divides her time between inspecting work sites, training workers, and delivering expert testimony in court cases involving chemical exposure. She is the President and founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc., and a regular guest on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. She has lectured and consulted in the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Mexico, and Portugal.

Synopsis: Did you know that "nontoxic" usually means "never tested"? Or that many green cleaners are good for the environment but terrible for you? Are your air purifiers, counter cleaners, baby powders, and low-VOC paints doing more harm than good? Could the chemical stew we expose ourselves and our children to every day be causing the recent explosion of autism, diabetes, cancer, and other disorders?

In Pick Your Poison, chemist and activist Monona Rossol goes from under your sink to the halls of the powerful, tracing America's love affair with chemicals that kill, explaining how much worse the problem has gotten in the last decade. How bad is it? The terrible truth is that no one really knows, and neither the government nor the corporations seem eager to find out.

Review: There were another four or so paragraphs in the synopsis on the book jacket, but I think you get the idea, right? The basic gist behind Pick Your Poison is that there is not a single human population on earth that hasn't been exposed to hundreds of chemicals that are now in our bones and our blood stream, doing who knows what to our bodies. She calls for a global unification of standards regarding testing of and information about chemicals based on work being done in the European Union (because the U.S. is too far into the pockets of corporations to make changes that would benefit people) and gives tips on how we as consumers can cut down on the number of chemicals we buy so that we don't add to the stew that has already settled into our bodies.

Well-researched and written by an expert, Pick Your Poison is terrifying. It paints a grim picture of the state of our bodies and our environment due to greedy corporations making and selling products without thinking about the consequences of their actions. This book never gets maudlin or anything like that. While Rossol is occasionally sarcastic, this book is a mostly straight-forward exploration of how we got to where we are today and what can be done about it.

While I caution readers not to latch onto her theories about autism, diabetes, and the like without doing some research, she does make a good point about the accumulation of chemicals and their combined affects on the body that give weight to her calls to research these diseases and how they could be affected by what's languishing in our blood. She has been involved in numerous court cases about diseases like mesothelioma and is well aware of the biological consequences of exposure to chemicals. That most of the stuff that we use hasn't been tested means that we just don't know what is a carcinogen and what isn't. Scarier still is that there are chemicals that are structurally similar to things that are known to cause cancer, liver damage, etc. that are being used in place of banned chemicals without testing.

There were some editing issues that made me stumble a few times, but they don't take away from the book as a whole. While her sarcasm is understandable (here she's been fighting the good fight for decades and not seeing much progress), I felt that it was out of place in what was an otherwise serious book about a very serious subject.

Like most books of this sort, the author spends most of the book scaring the hell out of you and one chapter saying, "Well, I know that you all can't fully eliminate chemicals from your life, so here is a list of thirteen things that may or may not be feasible for you to do." I appreciate the tips, but I think that these should have been sprinkled throughout the chapters and then summarized at the end of the book. It took me a while to read this book due to Banned Book Week and by the time I got to the end of it I couldn't remember everything that she had said in the previous chapters. Her tips at the end are general. I would have liked specific products that could be used instead of the things she was discussing in each chapter clearly stated at the end of each chapter so that if I wanted to switch things out I would have an easy reference guide.

As someone who supports unions and the regulation of big business, this book only deepened my support. Anyone who can read this book and at the end of it say, "There's too much regulation" is either a CEO or a Republican politician. I highly recommend reading this book, especially if you have children (there's a lot of information about school supplies and toys that will make you feel ill), are an artist (seriously, you need to use protective gear when you do art), or are interested in helping the environment (just because it's green doesn't mean that it's good for you).

Read it. Take notes. Make some changes. We can't rid our bodies of the crap that's already there, but we can keep ourselves from accumulating some more if we're careful.

I'm giving Pick Your Poison 4 out of 5 Gabriels. It was a little too sarcastic in places and some of the scientific jargon was hard to follow. Also, it should come with a warning for hypochondriacs. Even my skin got creepy-crawly from time to time.



  1. This sounds like a GREAT book. I adore nonfiction and for some reason I like a book that scares me to bits.

    1. Agreed on both accounts. I'm huge into reading science, politics, etc., and I like when a book leaves me unsettled. It inspires me to do things.