Today, we take for granted that our medicines and juices are pure, our meat does not harbor bacteria and many consumer products may be used safely.
Standards for health and safety have been established by credible scientific research. Everyone relies on the precise analysis of chemists and other scientists to give us peace of mind when using countless products every day. This safety was not always the case.
In the 1920s, it was common for companies to use mercury in laxatives. Under the then-ineffectual Federal Drug Administration, manufacturers did not list the ingredients in their products. Nor were they required to test their products for safe usage. Consumers, and even the drug-makers themselves, were unaware of any hidden poisons.
Contemporary scientists analyzed the biochemical effects of substances found in the home and pharmacy. Their studies revealed that the mercury of the laxative medicine, for example, accumulated in the body and caused death.
The ground-breaking research of these scientists, who carefully built the model for forensic medicine, is the subject of The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum.
The book recounts how, between 1918 and 1936, a team of doctors, chemists and toxicologists developed procedures that revealed how unsafe many medicines and consumer products were.
The importance of reliable scientific research, which occurs behind the scenes before products are brought to market, cannot be over-estimated. As reviewer Matthew Pearl states, The Poisoner’s Handbook will “transform the way you think about the power of science to . . . save our lives.”