Book reviews


  • Glenn Suter


by Emily Monosson

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We are all aware that biological systems result from evolution and that natural selection is the design principle behind biological processes. However, evolution is seldom mentioned in the toxicological literature. The only routine use of evolutionary thinking that I can think of is the preference for data from the test species that is most closely related to our assessment endpoint species. There must be more that evolutionary biology can provide.

Emily Monosson does not provide practical applications in this book. Rather, she lays out the state of knowledge in evolutionary toxicology. In the introduction, she complains of the stasis of toxicology and its experimental protocols that have not changed in more than 4 decades. She, like many others, wants a more mechanistic, bottom-up approach to toxicology. However, unlike others, she argues that we are more likely to understand toxic responses if we understand the origins and development of the responding system.

Most of the chapters in the book are devoted to telling the evolutionary story of one toxicological system. They include: ultraviolet light and the evolution of DNA polymerase, O2 and the evolution of catalase, changes in metal availability and metal biology, evolution of cancer and P53, plant defensive chemicals and the evolution of CYP enzymes, and others. Each chapter begins with a pictorial and chronological conceptual model of the development of the system. These diagrams are very helpful and could be a model for many other technical books.

My favorite chapter was Metal Planet. It explains how the current nutrient and toxic functions of metals are a result of the responses of organisms to the shifts in planetary scale geochemistry. Bioavailability is the critical issue for evolution as for environmental toxicology. Iron (Fe) is our dominant heavy metal nutrient because it was the most abundant of the bioavailable metals in the reducing conditions under which life originated. As O2 was generated by life during the Great Oxidation Event, Fe became less available and Cu and Zn became more available. Life adapted by finding functions for these metals (forgive the teleology) but not enough to avoid the common toxic effects of these metals. Metallothioneins appear to have evolved during the global oxidation to deal with the shifts in metal availability by binding and transporting both essential and nonessential metals. Evolved responses to global shifts in metal availability pre-evolved the capacity to respond, at least to some extent, to being downstream of foundries or battery factories.

The author states that her intent is to “encourage students, researchers, and regulators alike to consider toxics in a broader and deeper context.” It seems to me that the best audience for this book is researchers developing what the US National Research Council called 21st century toxicology. This work has been entirely empirical, as best I can tell. It seems reasonable to expect that it would help to apply evolutionary theory and knowledge to understand the historical reasons for the seemingly haphazard adverse outcome pathways. At least, it would help to understand that the apparently cobbled-together appearance of these systems is the inevitable result of evolutionary bricolage.

2012. 223 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-59726-976-6. $35. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Glenn Suter

SETAC Reviews Editor


edited by Ngaio Richards

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The carbamate insecticide, carbofuran, has a long and well-documented history of killing wildlife. Those of us in the United States and Canada are familiar with the numerous observational and field experimental studies (summarized in Chapter 8 of this volume) demonstrating avian mortality in routine use according to the labels. However, I was unfamiliar with the routine use of carbofuran to deliberately poison wildlife both to eliminate wildlife pests and, even more surprising, to obtain birds for human consumption.

The book begins with 2 background chapters that provide an overview of carbofuran's chemistry, use, fate, toxicity, diagnostics, and treatment of victims. Then, the bulk of the book is devoted to a geographic survey of the problem. The first, longest, and most disturbing chapter is a detailed review of the situation in Kenya. It includes “pesticide hunting” for bird meat, poisoning of lions and other predators, primate pests, secondary poisoning of vultures and other scavengers, as well as the usual incidental poisoning of birds during agricultural use. Surprisingly, although pesticide-poisoned birds are openly marketed, there are no studies of human health effects. Other chapters address India, Europe, the United Kingdom, Latin America, and the United States and Canada.

The subchapter on the Netherlands was a surprise for me. My visits there and interactions with Dutch scientists left me with the impression that the Netherlands is an environmentally enlightened nation. However, the deliberate poisoning of raptors, foxes, and other predators with carbofuran has not been uncommon. Not only do the poisoners intend to protect racing pigeons, poultry, and small game, they even intend to help meadow-nesting birds that are in decline. The latter practice is in part intended to help birds such as lapwings but also because of the traditional practice of collecting eggs. The poisoning continues despite studies showing that the loss of meadow nesters is primarily due to the intensification of agriculture, not predation.

The final chapter, by the editor, contains recommendations aimed at manufacturers, governments, poachers, farmers, and the general public. In some cases, action must be taken to reduce wildlife–human conflicts that lead to poisoning, but more often education is needed to change perceptions and practices. However, in the end, Richards recommends a global ban because, “carbofuran is fundamentally unsafe for nontarget wildlife and people.”

2012. 277 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-470-74523-6. $150. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK.

Glenn Suter

SETAC Reviews Editor


by Bill Carter

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A genre has developed of books that develop a broad account of history or of how the world works around some particular item such as pencils, cod, gold, or Kalashnikov rifles. This book deviates from most of these in that the topic is so personal to the author. The journalist and nonfiction author, Bill Carter, lived in the old copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, and for 4 summers worked on a commercial salmon boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska (see his even more entertaining book, Red Summer: The Danger and Madness of Commercial Salmon Fishing in Alaska). His interest in copper rose when he was poisoned by his vegetable garden, the soil on his property was replaced by a remediation crew, and when he learned that mining may resume in Bisbee. It was also prompted by the potential Pebble copper and gold mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay's 2 major tributaries that provide the spawning grounds for the salmon that he harvested.

The narrative structure is provided by Carter's research for this book that also served to help him decide whether to move his family from Bisbee. As is usual in this genre, he traces copper's history back to ancient times and presents its role in history, writ large. He also explains its role in world economics and industry. However, the heart of the book is his tours of Arizona mines and prospective mines and of the Pebble site and the associated interviews with miners, mining executives, prospectors, fishermen, native peoples, and incidental figures such as a scrap metal dealer and a commodity trader. He is fair to everyone, even though he clearly identifies with the fishermen and native peoples and finds the mining executives and advocates somewhat alien. Throughout the book Carter is torn between his concern for the social and environmental consequences of copper mining and the fact that nearly everything he does from driving his car to fixing his hot water heater requires copper.

The book is of particular interest to the readers of this journal because of copper's prominence in environmental toxicology and chemistry. Copper mines have become major Superfund sites in the United States and, of course, have also caused severe contamination and social disruption elsewhere. Proposed copper mines are always controversial, but the proposed Pebble Mine has become a national issue in the United States. Copper has been a major topic of environmental research and is the object of the first mechanistically based water quality criteria. As a result, many of us have worked on some aspect of copper in the course of our careers. This book is a well written and an engaging opportunity to expand your appreciation of the inherent duality of the brown metal.

2012. 274 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-4391-3644-7. $26. Scribner, New York.

Glenn Suter

SETAC Reviews Editor


by Nate Silver

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As a result of the 2012 elections, Nate Silver has become America's only celebrity prognosticator. Although media pundits insisted that the recent US national election was too close to call, Silver correctly predicted each state in Obama's Electoral College landslide. This book is well timed to take advantage of his triumph.

The Signal and the Noise is not a handbook of prediction. Rather, it presents general principles of prediction and illustrates them with chapters on prediction in various contexts. They are: the 2007 economic collapse, political punditry, baseball, weather, earthquakes, economics, epidemiology, sports betting, chess, poker, stock markets, climate change, and terrorism. Some of these topics are informed by Silver's own experience. He began as an analyst for a business accounting firm, created and sold a database and program for predicting the performance of baseball players, played poker professionally and successfully, and then turned in 2008 to predicting elections on his 538 blog. However, most of the chapters are based on research including interviews of major figures in the field.

Silver's core message is to be Bayesian. That is, think probabilistically, think of predictive probability as the bet you would be willing to accept (subjectivism), determine your base (the prior), and update every time you get new information. Other messages include: combine multiple lines of evidence, pay attention to biases, be skeptical of relationships without mechanisms, do not over fit, and be aware of the Pareto principle of prediction. His writing is clear and he does an outstanding job of explaining concepts such as chaos theory. He provides numerous useful graphics to illustrate the concepts and cases.

Some of Silver's chapters are useful as well as entertaining. The US National Weather Service gets forecasting right. They are dealing with a highly complex and chaotic system, but they have a huge amount of data and experience in making and checking predictions. However, commercial forecasters like the weather channel have a clear bias to overforecast precipitation at low probabilities and local TV forecasters grossly overforecast precipitation at all levels. Accuracy is not as important as ensuring that you do not get blamed when an event gets rained out by an unpredicted storm. So, if you want the best prediction of weather in the United States, go directly to the National Weather Service site.

The most important chapter addresses climate change. Silver reviews climatology extremely briefly, then focuses on the nature of the controversy and examines the evidence for anthropogenic global warming. Not surprisingly, he finds the evidence to be convincing, but he also examines the relative successes of empirical climate models versus mechanistic simulation models. In particular, he provides good explanations of the “global cooling” of 2001 to 2011 and the resulting poor performance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's predictions. I was left with the thought that we need a national statistician, an objective individual who could resolve at least the quantifiable aspects of controversies such as the future of the climate or the Social Security Trust Fund. For that matter, we should be teaching basic probability and statistics to all high school graduates, not geometry.

So, how will I do risk assessment differently after reading this book? I am not sure. Although Silver treats a great diversity of types of predictions, my assessment problems do not resemble any of them. I have no long time series of data or the series is said to be irrelevant because “we are much more responsible now and have better technology.” In the end, Silver's book is an entertaining survey of prediction, and I recommend it on that basis. There is no recipe for prediction, but Silver's principles are generally useful and his cases are entertaining cautionary tales.

2012. 534 pp. Hard cover. ISBN 978-1-59420-411-1. $28. Penguin Press, New York.

Glenn Suter

SETAC Reviews Editor