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New Books Take You Through the Microscope to the World of Pathogens

The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens
By Muhammad H. Zaman
304 pp. Harper Wave. $28.99.

In “Biography of Resistance,” Zaman considers antibiotics as the major weapon for killing bacterial pathogens — and the ways in which this war has backfired. Bacteria and fungi have been producing antibiotics for many hundreds of millions of years. Relatively recently, humans figured out that they could co-opt some of these to control pathogenic bacteria. Doing so saved millions of lives. But it also increased the commonness of resistant bacteria, that is, bacteria that are impervious to antibiotics and, as a result, difficult to kill. “Biography of Resistance” profiles these bacteria, but also the people who study them. It is a useful, engaging opus.

There are now resistant strains of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis and other disease, but also resistant malaria protists, bedbugs, head lice, crop pests and even garden weeds. Zaman tells the stories of researchers working to understand the evolution, and to a lesser extent ecology, of bacterial resistance and when and why it emerges. Resistance is ancient (resistant bacteria can be found deep in caves beyond the reach of human influence), but it has taken on new forms and dynamics in light of the ways in which we have wielded antibiotics.

Zaman’s book includes histories of key moments in microbiology, reminders of how fast our perspectives on the microscopic world have evolved. When Anton van Leeuwenhoek first discovered microbial life in the 1600s, he imagined it to be wondrous and mostly beneficial. Once Louis Pasteur discovered that microbes could both make us sick and make beer, he came to see some species as dangerous but others as beneficial. Then once we developed antibiotics, scientists began to talk more often about a “war on germs,” in which germs were understood to be faceless, dangerous creatures all around us. With these increasingly resistant strains, the germs now seem to be taking this war seriously.

The New Science of Skin
By James Hamblin
278 pp. Riverhead. $28.

Zaman considers the impact of microbes globally. Meanwhile, Hamblin’s new book, “Clean,” is an ode to the invisible world laid out between his toes and in his armpits. Hamblin focuses on the skin, including that of his own body. Just as Pasteur and others revealed that some microscopic species could be dangerous, and long before antibiotics were discovered in the early 20th century, it became clear that lives could be saved through simple interventions that helped reduce the abundance of those dangerous species.

Hand washing has saved hundreds of millions of lives, as has the availability of drinking water that is free of pathogens (conversely, the lack of access to such drinking water endangers millions still today). The goal of these interventions is not to make hands sterile (one can’t) and to make water sterile (almost none is), but instead to control problem pathogens. But the cosmetics industry and other purveyors of solutions and creams came to recognize, as Hamblin documents, an opportunity to sell products and lifestyles that not only removed all germs but, just to be on the safe side, offered total and complete cleanliness as a goal. This, Hamblin concludes, actually just made us rashy and sick in new kinds of ways. And so begins the odyssey upon which Hamblin embarked.

While trying to understand his own skin, Hamblin stopped bathing, though he did still wash his hands and drink clean water. He does not use his personal experiment as evidence, so much as a way to drive the narrative. The writing is fun, interesting and credible, that of a science journalist trying to make sense of the biology of bodies and how they work in daily life. If Zaman’s book is about war, Hamblin’s is more about finding ways to make peace, not with pathogens but instead with our own bodies and the majority of species on and in them, species on which, he comes to see, we depend for survival and well-being. That peace can include “products,” just more carefully chosen ones. Tellingly, the cover of Hamblin’s book bears a fancy soap dispenser that appears to be dispensing dirt.

The Rise of Environmental Illness and the Search for America’s Last Pure Place
By Oliver Broudy
339 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.

Just as some biological environments are more healthful than others, so too are some chemical environments better for us than others. Understanding just which combinations of chemicals are good and which are bad and at what concentrations is challenging. Fortunately, many thousands of toxicologists, sociologists, epidemiologists and biologists have made it their lives’ work to try to get to some answers. And, unfortunately, many people don’t trust them.

In “The Sensitives,” Broudy zeros in on a group of people who have decided, on their own, that all of the chemistry associated with modern, industrial life is making them sick. These individuals are “sensitive” to everything from plastic to perfume, which they have deemed toxic, and have abandoned science and the medical system to find places where they feel well — something akin to the paleodiet but for chemistry.

“The Sensitives” is at its best when Broudy is chronicling the very real challenges of his subjects. Sensitives are united by the belief that they are suffering from “Environmental Illness.” E.I. is not recognized as a disease by any major medical organization. Those who self-diagnose with the disease suffer a grab bag of debilitating symptoms and are united by struggles to find clinicians able to help them. Broudy’s book is moved along by a kind of medical travel narrative as Broudy searches with one sensitive, James, for another, Brian, who has found a haven from what he believes to be the toxins of the world. Broudy’s writing inspires real empathy for the individuals he chronicles, individuals who can’t seem to get well or get help.

Where the book fails is in its implied conclusions. Broudy leaves the reader feeling as though in dealing with E.I. or any set of mysterious symptoms, science and self-diagnosis are just the same. At a moment when our collective well-being depends upon the public’s trust in experts, in their knowledge about pathogens and the civilization-saving value of vaccines, this is a very dangerous sentiment.

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