We had the wonderful opportunity to ask Deborah Blum, a New York Times Bestselling author, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and expert on poison subjects, a few questions. Blum is a self-proclaimed fan of the poison center system and shared her views on everything from science education to poison history.
I know – I worry sometimes that it makes me sound a little twisted. It really started because I had been thinking about a kind of subversive way to write about chemistry. I really find chemistry fascinating – the kind of intricate puzzle of it that builds like on Earth. But I also know that many people learned in high school to find it off putting. So essentially I was thinking about a story that was so compelling – like a murder story – that I could weave the chemistry seamlessly into it. That’s part of it.
The other part, I suppose, is that I grew up reading Agatha Christie. So I was intrigued by the idea of telling the book – this would be The Poisoner’s Handbook – with the pacing of an early 20th century murder mystery. I wanted to take readers on a detective journey, like the scientists of my story they would be trying to figure out how poisons work. But I give them the clues. So this is both the story of two scientists trying to build a science of forensic toxicology but it is a handbook of a poisons, every chapter is focused on one toxic substance and tells its story.
2. Many writers choose topics they feel empower their readers by giving them an appreciation for something they might not otherwise understand. What do you hope your readers take away from your writings, particularly your book “The Poisoner’s Handbook?”
Well, as I just emphasized Poisoner’s Handbook is a historical look at forensic toxicology. And I think that’s important. We can’t understand where we are unless we know how we got here. And this story tells us how new our “CSI era” is, how recent forensic science is, and helps us understand that we’re still figuring out how to navigate our chemical world. But, I hope, it also provides a very common sense perspective on poisonous substances. For instance, there are two chapters focused on carbon monoxide – which remains a public health problem even today. So I hope it also offers a common sense, take care of yourself kind of perspective on dangerous chemistry.
3. The accurate portrayal of science in the media is a growing concern. Are you concerned about toxicology is portrayed by the media? When it comes to poison information, what do you believe is the most important concern regarding accuracy and what steps do you recommend to ensure that your work addresses this concern?
I think we members of the media tend to spend too much time focusing on what I think of as “poster child” compounds – such as BPA – which raises some interesting questions about endocrine effects but is not what I think of as a class A danger. It’s kind of a pack journalism effect. Those compounds get lots of attention and lots of coverage. Meanwhile, there are less trendy but more dangerous substances – carbon monoxide, for instance, (which I make a point of writing about every year), or lead and other metallic elements, over the counter , which more directly harm people and it’s frustrating to me that they often get lost in the media noise.
And regarding accuracy? Lots of homework, interviews and like most dedicated beat reporters, I think, I develop a group of scientists who become an informal peer review system so that I can check or even double check ideas and information.
4. With your comprehensive knowledge of poisons and poison history, how would you characterize the evolving role of poison centers in America’s public health system?
I’ve downloaded and studied the annual reviews by poison control centers and I’m always struck by much I learn from them. Some of my own sense of what matters and what’s dangerous have come from reading those reports. I think poison control centers have ground into one of our most important public health resources. They identify patterns as risks emerge and change, they offer information on the science, and on an emergency basis they help frightened families get through critical events. I wish, actually, that we put even more resources into them than we do now.
5. As an experienced science educator, what trends in access to basic science education have you noticed and how do you think those trends will impact the upcoming generation of scientists?
I’m a big believer in science literacy so I’m hoping that we’re learning to do a better job of educating the non-scientists as well as the scientists. I always think we could do a better job of training future generations of researchers – and also in investing in research so we can take advantage of that potential. But I also believe that we need to focus on those who don’t want to be scientists but DO needs to have a common sense understanding of what it is and how it’s helpful in their lives. My younger son took a class in forensic science when he was a senior in high school and they turned one room of the school into a “crime scene.” They had to solve crimes using everything from urinalysis to fingerprinting to DNA analysis. And with every unit, they learned something about science and how it works and why it matters in their lives. I actually think that as a country we’d be investing more in science now if we’d done a better job of engaging everyone in the story. So I hope this is an actual trend in the right direction.
6. What is your favorite piece that you’ve ever written?
Oh, there are so many! My favorites are ones in which there’s a story behind the story. For instance, I wrote an e-single for The Atavist called “Angel Killer” about a really crazy (and terrible) 1930s serial killer. It’s his story but it’s also the story of the ethical dilemma we face in dealing with really crazy people. I love that kind of deeper backstory to a piece. And there’s a piece I wrote about carbon monoxide poisoning called “Poison in the Night” which I love for that reason (it’s really a PSA) but because I told it in such a literary way – I think – that it’s one of the most subtle PSAs ever to say “GET A CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTOR”. So I guess I’m telling you there’s not just one.
7. Poison is an intriguing topic. While shows such as CSI that feature forensic toxicology enjoy a growing audience, poison center educators sometimes find that it’s difficult to get the public’s attention when it comes to following home-based poison prevention safety measures. What is the key to making people appreciate the dangers of common, everyday poisons when they aren’t wrapped up in intrigue?
That’s a really good question. And a frustrating issue. I’m a big believer actually in just repeating myself – GET A CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTOR – in many different ways. Just wrote a piece about carbon monoxide deaths in hotels which pretty much says the same thing again. I wish there was a magic answer here. But I don’t think there is one because for reasons I don’t understand we’re so slow in learning how to take care of ourselves. So I don’t know what to do except to keep telling the story in different ways, keep hitting people over the head with it until some of them get it at least.
Of course, you can always get smart writers like me to do some of that work!
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food. (Biography courtesy of Wired.com)