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“Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong,” by Paul A. Offit, National Geographic Press, 2017. In this 287-page hardback, Dr. Offit urges readers to be cautious about science claims. He chooses seven examples.

The first is the story of opium, which was known to the Sumerians perhaps 6000 years ago. Opium is the hardened gum derived from the seedpod of the opium poppy. It’s medical properties were known from ancient times to both the Greeks and the Romans. It reached China in the seventh century where people learned to smoke it and become addicted. It became the subject of opium wars with Britain between 1839 and 1860. Alchemist Paracelsus invented laudenum in the 16th century by dissolving opium in brandy, a popular liquid form. The active, morphine, was isolated in 1803; Merck began production in Germany in 1827. Bayer offered heroin--thought to be a non-addictive derivative--in 1898. It was sold in the US by Eli Lilly beginning in 1900. Heroin became illegal in 1924. Oxycondone was first synthesized in 1916, became available in the US in the 1950s as Percodan and Percocet, later in OxyContin. Physicians were encouraged to prescribe more pain pills for terminally ill patients. Widespread misuse followed.

Next is the story of margarine, which began when Napoleon III sought a butter substitute for his troops in 1869. A French chemist, Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, came up with oleomargarine, originally a blend of beef fat (tallow) with vegetable oil. Hydrogenation of vegetable oils to harden them was discovered in 1901, and soon licensed by Procter & Gamble. Crisco was made from cottonseed oil. The name is derived from crystallized cottonseed oil. Its advantages are longer shelf life due to better stability, less smoke at high temperatures, neutral flavor, and low cost. The process introduced transfats, which later were found unhealthy.

Studies connecting cholesterol with heart disease date back to 1913 when Nikolay Anichkov in Russia found that rabbits fed a high cholesterol diet developed atherosclerosis. Concerns about fats in the diet and butter date from the sixties. The problem of transfats was first reported in 1981.

Next is the story of nitrogen fixation. German chemist, Fritz Haber, received a Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1914 that nitrogen in the air can be reacted with hydrogen under high pressure to produce synthetic ammonia. Today almost all nitrogen fertilizer comes from this process. Ammonia can be converted to nitric acid, nitrates, urea, and many related chemicals. Before the Borne-Haber process, most nitrogen fertilizer was imported from Chili or came from bat guano in saltpeter caves. Without synthetic fertilizer, feeding the world’s population would have been impossible. Many would have starved. Nitrates are essential ingredients for gunpowder and most explosives. The technology relieved Germany of dependence on imported nitrates and a possible blockade in World War I.

Haber became head of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany. There he was leader of a group who developed poison gas for World War I. When the Nazi’s came to power, his Jewish ancestry threatened his position. He was enroute to a new position in Israel when he died in Switzerland in 1934. Offit’s message is that every new technology has tradeoffs, occasionally with tragic consequences.

A chapter traces the history of the eugenics movement. Mendel’s discovery of the laws of inheritance was interpreted by some to mean that better humans were possible from better genes. In the extreme, those with “bad” genes were sterilized or even killed to prevent their reproduction. In the US, the leader of the eugenics movement was Charles Davenport of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, NY. Those labeled undesirable included the feebleminded, the poor, alcoholics, criminals, epileptics, the insane, the “constitutionally weak,” those with venereal diseases, the deformed, the deaf, dumb, and blind. The work was supported by well known foundations including Carnegie Foundation, Rockefeller Institute, George Eastman, and Mrs. EH Harriman.

The book, Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant, popularized the issue. Congress restricted immigration of undesirables in 1917. A series of similar laws followed through 1929. Over 65,000 Americans were sterilized often against their will in 32 states. The Nazis adopted the concept and carried it to the extreme of executing the undesirables. Offit cites eugenics as an example of zeitgeist. Watch out for overly zealous adoption of popular ideas.

Lobotomies are featured in a chapter. The surgical procedure was developed to treat mental patients in the 1930s. At the time there were no treatments. The severely mentally ill were housed in hospitals described as “snake pits.” Eventually the procedure was reduced to use of an icepick to impair function of the frontal lobe of the brain. The procedure modified the behavior of severely ill patients, but was sometimes fatal and was more damaging than curative. John Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, was one of those treated–unsuccessfully. Thorazine approved in 1954 was the first effective drug for schizophrenia. It was followed by antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. The message is beware of the quick fix.

A chapter describes Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the banning of DDT. Carson was very effective in presenting her point of view, but the author thinks her message was more polemic than scientific. She exaggerated facts and presented them in attractive language. He notes that DDT was highly effective in controlling typhus and malaria. By banning DDT, we allowed malaria cases to increase. World Health Organization has reversed its position and no longer calls for banning DDT. Instead they recommend limited use. His point is dose makes the poison. Be cautious about being overly cautious.

Next the author describes Nobel Prize disease. Linus Pauling was one of America’s best known scientists having won two Nobel Prizes. He adopted the idea that heavy doses of vitamins, especially Vitamin C to treat the common cold, could cure diseases. He extended his claims to the use of vitamins to treat cancer. Pauling used his reputation to promote his ideas with little scientific evidence. Subsequent studies have not supported his ideas. Offit uses the Wizard of Oz to illustrate the point. Pay attention to the little man behind the curtain.

In a final chapter he briefly describes recent developments. He notes that e-cigarettes are an improvement over cigarette smoking which delivers harmful tar in addition to nicotine. He thinks e-cigarettes are unhealthy. Frankenfoods, those modified with GMOs, are discussed. He believes they are safe. Concerns about bisphenol-A (BPA) are exaggerated. Data showing BPA harmful were obtained by injecting BPA bypassing the liver, which would degrade it.

He notes that saccharin once carried a cancer warning label. Later it was discovered the tests used rodents which had acidic urine. That resulted in microcrystals which damaged the lining of the bladder. FDA removed the warning labels in 2000. Exotic treatments for autism have been proposed. Offit urges caution. The use of thimersal as a preservative in vaccines has received much attention. He feels the levels used are harmless.

He discusses the screening for cancer. Tests for thyroid cancer and prostate cancer are so sensitive that many non-fatal cancers are being detected. The result is over treatment. Mamograms save lives but how many and at what cost. For every 100,000 women tested, 122 are positive, but only 8 deaths are prevented. The benefit seems small compared to the cost. In 1998, a British physician reported that measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism. Follow-up studies showed the report to be incorrect.

Overall, this book is informative and thought provoking. Offit teaches caution in adopting ideas. And he provides thorough histories of select subjects. This is a good read. Bibliography. Index.
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