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The Alchemy of Disease: How Chemicals and Toxins Cause Cancer and Other Illnesses

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Since the dawn of the industrial age, we have unleashed a bewildering number of potentially harmful chemicals. But out of this vast array, how do we identify the actual threats? What does it take to prove that a certain chemical causes cancer? How do we translate academic knowledge of the toxic effects of particular substances into understanding real-world health consequences? The science that answers these questions is toxicology.

In The Alchemy of Disease, John Whysner offers an accessible and compelling history of toxicology and its key findings. He details the experiments and discoveries that revealed the causal connections between chemical exposures and diseases. Balancing clear accounts of groundbreaking science with human drama and public-policy relevance, Whysner describes key moments in the development of toxicology and their thorny social and political implications. The book features discussions of toxicological problems past and present, including DDT, cigarettes and other carcinogens, lead poisoning, fossil fuels, chemical warfare, pharmaceuticals—including opioids—and the efficacy of animal testing. Offering valuable insight into the science and politics of crucial public-health concerns, The Alchemy of Disease shows that toxicology’s task—pinpointing the chemical cause of an illness—is as compelling as any detective story.

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Whysner John
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John Whysner was formerly an associate clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. A board-certified toxicologist, he has consulted for the International Agency for Research on Cancer and federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and was director of biomedical research for the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, Executive Office of the President.


Part I: Why Do We Need Toxicology?
1. Cancer Clusters: Truth Can Be Obscure
2. Death from Arsenic and Venoms: Truth Can Be Obvious
3. Paracelsus: The Alchemist at Work
4. Mining and the Beginnings of Occupational Medicine
5. The Chemical Age
6. The Bioassay Boom
Part II: How Do We Study Toxicology, and What Have We Learned?
7. Lead: A Heavy Metal Weighing Down the Brain
8. Rachel Carson: Silent Spring Is Now Noisy Summer
9. The Study of Cancer
10. How Are Carcinogens Made?
11. Some Carcinogens Directly Affect Genes
12. Cancer Caused by Irritation
13. Cigarette Smoking: Black, Tarry Lungs
14. What Causes Cancer?
Part III: How Do We Use Toxicology?
15. Protecting Workers from Chemical Diseases
16. The Importance of Having a Good Name
17. Can We Accurately Regulate Chemicals?
18. The Dose Makes the Poison
19. Are We Ready to Clean Up the Mess?
20. Legal Battles
21. The Toxicology of War
Part IV: The Unfinished Business of Toxicology
22. Opiates and Politics
23. The Toxicology of Climate Change
24. Animal Models for Human Disease
25. Are Animal Cancer Bioassays Reliable?
26. Hormone Mimics and Disrupters
27. Building Better Tools for Testing
28. An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure
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