John Nicholson reviews this eye-opening insight into the world of arsenic
Is arsenic an aphrodisiac? The sociochemistry of an element
William R. Cullen
Cambridge: RSC 2008 | Pp428 | £55.95 | ISBN 978 0 85 404363 7
The element arsenic has been known from antiquity and is famed above all for its toxicity. With chemical properties that resemble both non-metals and metals, it is described as a 'metalloid'. Arsenic forms a variety of compounds, and has many important technological uses. More than that, the element has influenced the lives (and deaths) of many people throughout the history of the world.
This book sets out to cover the extraordinary influence of arsenic for which the author has coined the term 'sociochemistry'. The result is fascinating. Covering the chemistry, toxicology, and medicinal aspects of arsenic in a style suited to both the general reader and the specialist, Cullen describes how the element has become so influential. He covers a wide range of topics including the use of arsenic in pharmacy from Chinese medicine to the early days of chemotherapy, when Paul Ehrlich discovered salvarsan, the arsenic-based cure for syphilis. Cullen also notes that, more recently, arsenic trioxide has been used successfully to treat a form of leukaemia.
Other chapters introduce arsenic compounds used in agriculture, wood preservation and their occurrence in the environment. The current tragedy of high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water threatening the lives of millions of poor people in Bangladesh and elsewhere is covered in depth. The book also explains the roles of mining and of the manufacture of pesticides in causing high arsenic concentrations in soils and slag heaps, and the risks these environmental hazards pose to human health.
The author describes his earliest encounter with the chemistry of arsenic as a student, and how this influenced him to do a PhD in arsenic chemistry. From this start followed a highly successful career in chemistry and this book represents the culmination of a lifetime's fascination with arsenic chemistry.
This book is certainly to be treasured and is everything a book on chemistry should be - readable, interesting, informative and well referenced. There is just one thing: Cullen does not answer the question he poses in the title.