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What’s the Matter With Kids These Days?
By J. Robert Hatherhill, PH.D, Environmental Studies Program,
University of California at Santa Barbara, and EarthSave's Chief Scientific Advisor.

Most parents are troubled about school safety – hardly surprising, considering the recent wave of school shootings. We are led to believe that, if we shield our children from guns and violence and do our duty as good parents, our kids will grow up as well-adjusted and caring adults. The blame for school violence is directed at many fronts, from the gun makers to the entertainment industry, while lawmakers, educators and parents alike try to sort it all out. But is there a contributor to youth violence our society hasn’t seriously considered?

Toxic Chemicals; Toxic Behavior

Simply put -- pollution causes some people to commit violent crimes. It is astonishing to the point of regret that the media has not widely reported the role of aggression and toxic chemicals. There is an expanding body of research showing that pollutants such as heavy metals (e.g., lead) and pesticides decrease mental ability and increase aggressive behavior. Could our food supply be a contributor to youth violence?

In 1992 the Congressional ban on ocean dumping of sewage sludge went into effect. As a result, farmers began plowing sludge into croplands… that’s right: reclaimed water and sewage sludge is used to produce the food you eat. The composition of sewage sludge differs widely, but typically includes disease-causing microbes, heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, household chemicals, industrial chemicals and pesticides.

When this ill-fated decision on sludge dumping was implemented, the Columbine gun boys were a tender 10 and 11 years old. Now commercially grown produce is subject to more chemical defilement then ever before in American history. Are we now growing a new generation of violent gun thugs along with our soybeans and broccoli?

Children at risk

Many studies have documented human risk to pesticide exposure. Children are a more sensitive population than adults. You cannot think of children as small adults—they are growing rapidly and are more vulnerable to chemical exposure. They absorb more toxic agents and have not fully formed a protective blood brain barrier. Therefore an exposure that has no measurable effect on an adult can cause a deleterious reaction in children.

Children are more susceptible to pollutants than are adults. Because they are smaller and rapidly growing, they can absorb 40%-50% more toxic lead than adults. Furthermore, babies fed infant formula rather than breast milk will absorb more heavy metals, such as manganese, than will a breast-fed child or an adult. A calcium-deficient diet in childhood will also trigger increased uptake of lead and manganese.

Recent studies show that trace levels of multiple pesticides cause increased aggression. It is noteworthy that aggression was triggered with trace combinations of multiple pesticides but not exposure to a single pesticide. Specifically, trace pesticide mixtures have induced abnormal thyroid hormone levels. Irritability, aggression and multiple chemical sensitivity are all associated with thyroid hormone levels.

More recently, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, heavy metals such as lead have been associated with learning disabilities (such as attention deficit disorder), aggressive behavior and delinquency. More worrisome, at least seven other studies show that violent criminals have elevated levels of lead, cadmium, manganese, mercury and other toxic chemicals in their bodies, compared with prisoners who are not violent.

Who’s really to blame for youth violence?

While society hunts for the scapegoats of youth violence, perhaps our time would be better spent testing all of the recent teen slayers for the presence of these toxic pollutants.

We like to believe that a steady diet of violence in the media is responsible for our more violent world when, in reality, it may be a steady diet of pesticides and heavy metals that is sending our youth off the edge. We are concerned about lack of parental involvement -- in this context, parents who purchase the typical processed and commercially grown foods for their family may be unknowingly contributing to their child’s delinquency.

For decades we have regarded the violence in our societies as being grounded in purely sociologic roots. Meanwhile, according to the Justice Department, in the decade from 1984-94 the number of youths under 18 who were arrested for murder TRIPLED. Has society really degenerated that much…or is it, perhaps, time to focus attention on the possible human consequences resulting from a dramatic conversion of the nation’s food supply?

This is not your grandfather’s dinner table

The nourishment of the American people has undergone a startling transformation since World War II. A highly individual cottage industry of growing food has been transformed into a gigantic, mechanized, industrial complex. In recent years food technology has led to sweeping changes in the nutritional composition of diets in the developed world. The diets of the industrialized world remain “wrapped in plastic,” while an explosive increase in over-processed foods has led to a table menu that has been stripped of many essential nutrients and fiber. A diet fi lled with fiber-poor convenience foods leads to a greater uptake of pollutants such as mercury and PCB. The New England Journal of Medicine has reported that children who are exposed to low levels of PCBs in the womb grow up with poor reading comprehension, low IQs and memory problems. (PCBs are toxic industrial chemicals manufactured since 1929 by Monsanto.) Further, the widespread use of pesticides has increased 33 fold since 1942.

What’s society to do? The research clearly shows that preventing childhood exposure to toxic agents is only part of the solution. We need to methodically rethink our dependence on commercial produce and processed food diets as well as the release of toxic materials into our agricultural environment. Rather than direct all our attention to the bitter debates on gun control and the violence in the entertainment industry, society should not overlook the pressing need for cleaner environments and nutritious organically grown food. What’s a parent to do? Steps you can take to protect your children:
  1. Buy organic produce.
  2. Support product manufacturers that use organic ingredients.
  3. Patronize area restaurants that use organic ingredients.
  4. Keep an organic yard, garden and household. Use the tips in the sidebar to limit your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals.
  5. Limit or eliminate meat and dairy from your family’s diet. 80% of all corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. – most of it conventionally grown – is fed to livestock, which concentrate the toxins in their flesh and milk.
  6. Write your senator or congressperson in support of laws establishing organic standards.
  7. Consider having your children tested for heavy metal and/or pesticide residues, particularly if they are experiencing learning or behavioral problems.

Dr. J. Robert Hatherill, is a research scientist and faculty member of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of Eat to Beat Cancer published by Renaissance Books (1998).