Fumifugium – what’s in a name?

Toxicologists are an odd bunch with a tendency to embrace dark and sometimes geeky humor. Take the name of this blog. Fumifugium. What is it?

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Woodblock print from Fumifugium (John Evelyn, 1661) depicting London. Image from R. Hartsook personal collection.

Written in 1661 by noted British diarist John Evelyn and submitted to King Charles II, Fumifugium is among the oldest known public health documents about air pollution. In it, Evelyn describes damage inflicted by air pollution on the art, architecture, and horticulture of London. He depicts scenes at Whitehall in which men “could hardly discern one another” and correctly attributes the sooty vapor engulfing London to the burning of coal. Making reference to three Italian volcanoes, Evelyn asserts that “the City of London resembles the face…of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the Suburbs of Hell.” Not well-received by the College of Physicians (Evelyn was, after all, a country gentleman and not trained in medicine which at the time involved the prodigious use of leeches), Evelyn’s opinions about the impact of air pollution on public health were nonetheless insightful.

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Woodblock print from Fumifugium (John Evelyn, 1661) depicting smoke pollution.  Image from R. Hartsook personal collection.

Identifying coal as the primary source of pollution choking London, Evelyn proposed several remedies including the relocation of coal-intensive industries to the outskirts of the city and the planting of swaths of trees and shrubs (what we might describe as greenbelts). A noted arborist, Evelyn also proposed burning wood instead of coal.

While a graduate student, I acquired a 1933 reprint of Fumifugium from a book dealer in Sacramento, California. Originally intended as a gift for my major professor upon completion of my dissertation, the slight volume with a bland cover seemed an insufficient expression of gratitude. As such, Fumifugium joined my modest collection of antique books. Last week, as I scanned the bookshelf for inspiration to name this blog, the unsightly putty cover caught my eye. After reading the entirety of the treatise for the first time in more than 18 years (which is no small feat given the 17th-century spelling), I embraced the title as the name for this blog. Fumifugium was, after all, a form of modern-day activism in the interest of public health. Given this current moment in history, the name seems apt.

The shifting winds of environmental protection.

Some 48 years ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) was formed by a Republican president—Richard Nixon—in response to environmental disasters impacting public health. In particular, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was the proverbial spark for what is now described as an environmental revolution.

Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio circa 2018. Stock image (123rf.com).

In June 1969, oil-soaked debris floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. While a conflagration on this badly polluted waterway was a regular occurrence and hardly registered in local news coverage, a Time magazine article provided sufficient national exposure to prompt the Clean Water Act and the formation of an environmental protection agency that eventually became the US EPA.

That agency is now at a crossroad.

Irrespective of politics, I will offer this regarding environmental protection: being an environmentalist is not an act of idealism, but one of self-preservation. “Mother Earth” is an old inanimate object that will persist long after the last of our kind takes a final breath. To suggest that a planetary object requires protection from humanity lacks both humility and an understanding of basic science. It is humankind, a species far more fragile than many species now extinct, that benefits from environmental stewardship. Choices that impact the breathability of the air, the drinkability of the water, and the health of the ecosystem on which we rely for food, impair our survival.  This is not an abstract concept–we see it every day in communities small and large across the United States. As examples:

So Fumifugium is the name of the blog. What topics will the blog cover?

This blog is an extension of my response to questions on Quora. Recognizing the value in the sharing of scientific ideas and explaining toxicological concepts, I started posting answers on Quora late last year. Quickly a theme emerged; questions related to health risks from environmental factors (e.g., diet, pollution, mobile phone use) were those most frequently asked. From those brief posts grew a desire to share more substantive discourse about a range public health and toxicology topics.

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Illustration of ENDS. Tess Marhofer for Takmos LLC. Copyright 2018.

Currently, I’m working on a series of posts about electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), more commonly known as electronic cigarettes or “vapes.” A largely unregulated industry until recently, ENDS have the distinction of renormalizing nicotine addiction and unraveling decades of tobacco prevention education. In particular, ENDS are popular among young never-smokers who find appeal in the candy-like flavors, the low price, and ease of use. An incorrect perception of ENDS—that they emit only harmless water vapor and can be used safely indoors—is easily disproven by empirical data demonstrating second and thirdhand exposure to nicotine and ENDS solution components. Sadly, an accounting of the public health cost of ENDS will not come for some time, long after the damage is done.

My first post-college job at the American Lung Association and an understanding of how environmental pollution impacts public health have informed my professional and personal interests for decades. My Fumifugium blog aspires to be a modern-day version of Evelyn’s treatise and intended to prompt discourse on topics relevant to public health.

I hope you will follow this blog to receive notifications of new articles. I will not share, sell, or use your information to pester you in any way (what Big Brother does with it, who knows).

Until next time!  -Renee

Fumifugium is the blog of Renee Hartsook Ph.D. DABT, consulting toxicologist and owner of Takmos LLC.