How George Washington Treated Smallpox 

Review by
Tom Graham for The Washington Post

Right from the start, James P. Collman, author of Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts About Food, Health, and the Environment (University Science, $29), has food on his mind: When it comes to the things we eat -- or drink or breathe -- there's no such thing as a free lunch, he says. Many of our routine decisions carry at least some risk; his mission is to advise us about the hazards we may not notice. (Are organic foods as safe as we might think? Can a megadose of the essential element selenium be fatal?)

Aiming to improve readers' scientific literacy, Naturally Dangerous examines the risks involved in the choices we make about what we eat, how we treat our illnesses and how much time we spend out in the sun. From electric blankets to monosodium glutamate to genetically engineered foods, Collman steers a reasoned, sensible course through the potentially hazardous straits of everyday life.

Inevitably, new pieces of evidence make some of his material dated. For example, one of the cholesterol-fighting drugs he mentions, Baycol, was recently withdrawn by its manufacturer after it was linked to the deaths of some of its users.

Collman is at his best when he describes how viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms function -- sometimes to our benefit, sometimes not. Managing to be entertaining as well as informative, he devotes a short segment to Vegemite, the foul-smelling sludge that Australians reclaim from brewery waste and spread proudly -- and nutritiously -- on their toast. He also enjoys using historical examples -- explaining, for example, how George Washington took one approach to countering smallpox among his troops while his British counterparts took another.

A professor of chemistry at Stanford University, Collman will sometimes leave readers puzzled or wishing they'd paid more attention in high school to the periodic table. In another frustrating moment, he ends a chapter by stating that the major components in gasoline are toxic, and some of them are mild carcinogens. "Thus, pumping your own gasoline is a risky activity," he says. How risky? He doesn't say. How best to avoid that risk, other than by using a bike or moving to Oregon or New Jersey, where there are no self-service pumps? Again, he doesn't say.

Overall, though, if you treat Collman's book as a sampler of solid advice, you won't finish it feeling hungry.

-- Tom Graham is a  staff writer for The Washington Post.

2001 The Washington Post Company