Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Lead Bellies

Lead has been on my mind recently, making me impulsive, twitchy and irritable, and impairing my fine motor skills.

I joke, but seriously, the idea that lead pollution is a driver of violent crime is all over the blogosphere after Kevin Drum published an article in Mother Jones alleging that the spike and decline in crime rates seen in the twentieth century closely parallels exposure to lead, particularly as a fuel additive for cars (which, of course, exploded in popularity in the twentieth century) and to a lesser extent, lead paint.

It’s weird timing for me, as I’ve been on a hunt for biophysical drivers of social evolution in preparation for a book idea. Serendipity? I had just finished a book called Napoleon’s Glands by Arno Karlen. The glands of the title refer to the large assortment of ailments that started to plague Napoleon late in his career transforming him from a dynamic wunderkind to a balding, paunchy pale shadow of his former self. This has fascinated historians ever since, so Napoleon provides a starting point for Karlen’s adventures in biohistory.

Many people are probably aware of the idea that Napoleon suffered badly from hemorrhoids, and that the irritation from this as he sat upon his horse surveying the battle of Waterloo might have caused Europe’s greatest military mind to make the tactical mistakes causing to lose a battle many military historians think he probably should have won. Of course, European history unfolded very differently after that moment, so it’s mind-boggling to think that a little Preperation-H might have changed the course of world history. This is actually one of the subjects of the book Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids, (or Napoleon’s Piles in the U.K.), an entertaining read speculating how little things may have changed the course of history. Napoleon’s physical decline has been attributed variously to syphilis, a malfunctioning thyroid gland, and even a parasite he picked up in Egypt. His death, too, was the subject of medical speculation – it was alleged that he was slowly poisoned by arsenic slipped into his food by the British, rather than stomach cancer.

From there, Karlen surveys the painter Francisco Goya, who suffered from mysterious bouts of illness transforming his paintings from bright, unremarkable portraits into dark, innovative, experimental  works. This is chalked up to lead poisoning, particularly from lead in the vibrant whites Goya often smeared with his hands on his canvasses (now replaced by titanium dioxide). Many painters at the time seem to have been afflicted by similar ailments, caused by grinding and mixing their own paints and inhaling the dust. Then he surveys the short, tragic life of Edgar Allen Poe. Castigated by biographers as a pitiful drunk, it turns out Poe hardly drank at all. When he did, though, his personality completely transformed, a trait Karlen attributes to the lack of a gene to metabolize alcohol properly. Alas, the book was too early to describe the recent suggestion that much of Henry VIII's life could be explained by McLeod's syndrome.

He then goes on to consider what pathologists have learned from Egyptian mummies, among the first bodies to be extensively analyzed by pathologists (since they were well-preserved and already in museums), and what we can learn from ancient skeletons (health status, nutrition, cause of death, reproduction rates, etc.). The years since the book’s publication in 1984 have seen an explosion of these techniques, practically rewriting our understanding of the past.

The chapter “our ailing biosphere” is a look at what effect toxins in the environment play on people, with lead taking the center stage. Karlen surveys lead poisoning through history down to the present day. The chapter is worth reading in full to see just how saturated our modern world is with toxins, and how long we’ve just borne out the effects as human Guinea pigs poisoned by our own cleverness. It’s a classic case of the Blowback Principle, or the fact that was are not as smart as we think we are.

What Kevin Drum’s article forces me to wonder most about, though, is just how many other things in the environment have deleterious effects we do not yet know about (or suspect but can’t prove)? We may scoff at the toxic amounts lead unwittingly used by these ancient peoples, but I wonder what future generations will make of the toxicity of the daily environment we inhabit and the results. Endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, flame retardants, Bisphenol-A. (invented as a synthetic estrogen), the pesticides that coat our food (designed to disrupt the nervous systems of pests), the list is almost endless. Phthalates in plastic seem to have effects on the developing fetus, including feminization of boys and lowered sperm counts. Future generations may marvel that we practically surrounded sensitive newborn babies with plastics (baby bottles, disposable diapers, bassinets, etc.)

We’re all bathed in the man-made radiation from cell phone towers, microwave ovens and wireless networks. How safe do we feel about that? We can’t eat fish because of mercury. There is dioxin in breast milk. Even the things we do know about, like particulate matter In the air is ignored. I know I smelled some nasty stuff in the air today. How many knock-on effects are caused by these that science does not have sufficient reach to determine with certainty? Correlation may not prove causation, but what is often forgotten is the reverse – that correlation and causation are very hard to prove, even when they do exist because everything is ultimately connected.

I wonder how many other lead-bombs are waiting out there. We have not cured cancer, but we have dramatically decreased it by putting down our cigarettes. How many years did we wring our hands about cancer while lighting up? Decade after decade. Maybe lead is just the beginning. How many problems are we trying to “solve” by more innovation that are simply caused by pollution from our environment. Cancer? Autism? Asthma? Obesity? How much of this medical innovation would be rendered unnecessary with a bit of environmental cleanup or behavioral change?

With one and three children born today condemned to obesity, I feel confident that future historians will point out the role that obesity and diabetes had in sinking the American empire.  Medical spending is devouring us whole. Rather than defrutum the Romans used as a sweetener and preservative, it will be the corn syrup we added our food that sinks us.

Lead Poisoning in Rome - The Skeletal Evidence (Powered by Osteons)
Defrutum (Wikipedia)
Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History (Wired)
The Grime Behind the Crime (George Monbiot)
How Did Lead Get Into Our Gasoline Anyway? (Kevin Drum)
Leaded gasoline and the 20th-century crime wave (BoingBoing)
Lead and Crime: A Correction (Kevin Drum)
Does lead poisining make you violent? (BBC)

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me what you now see in children to such an alarming extent -- jittery constant movement, mouths that never stop making noises, sudden impulsive and pointless actions, no ability to see, understand, listen and respond -- is not "kids being kids" but widespread neurological damage, likely caused by pesticides, plastics and pollution.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.