Professor Neurotoxicity

A renegade researcher believes the teenage killers of Columbine could have been driven to crime by environmental poisoning.

Jill Priluck
June 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Two weeks after Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold, video gaming outcasts
in a clique-saturated high school, carried out a terrorist-like attack on
Hitler's birthday and killed 15 people, including themselves, Elizabeth Farnsworth, chief
correspondent for "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer," moderated a discussion
among Denver teens about juvenile violence. In trying to understand the
motivation behind the worst juvenile shooting in U.S.
history, high school student Kyra Glore was describing the lingering
resentment she felt from being teased in elementary school.

Farnsworth: So you had some understanding of the kind of anger that Klebold and Harris had.

Glore: I do. Because it rips people up differently ... Something had to be
going on there that really, really pushed the right buttons, you know, to
get them to do this, because you don't just one morning wake up and say,
hey, I'm going to go shoot my classmates; I'm going to go pipe-bomb up the
school. You don't just wake up one morning and figure that out. Something
has to develop over years and years and years. That leads up to something
like that.

For Kyra Glore, the slow accumulation of hatred from childhood
cruelties was responsible. But she was only one of millions of experts, family members,
pundits and ordinary people who were trying to figure out how such an
explosion of human ugliness could erupt in so seemingly benign a setting.
The national obsession with the hows and whys of juvenile crime quickly
morphed into a litany of blame: Guns. Hollywood. The Internet. Parents.
Goth. Doom. In the two months since the shootings, we have trotted out all the same
arguments that our culture has been debating -- with little progress --
for decades. Does technology desensitize us? Are
parents abdicating their responsibilities? Have children grown crueler as
our media tastes have become increasingly gruesome? Has the availability of
guns made it too easy for children's violent fantasies to become a

Roger Masters, a retired professor of government
at Dartmouth, has a more concrete theory. Masters, a maverick researcher with no formal scientific training who has been studying the link between pollution and
violent crime, argues that metal toxins in the brain can lead to murders, rapes and robberies -- including the one at Littleton.

"Nobody makes the connection between metals, brain chemistry, behavior and
crime," Masters says. "There's the broader issue of how chemicals are affecting the brain
and the things we do. It goes beyond the idea that watching
television causes crime."


Study of the dangers of heavy
metals and their effects on the brain has been going on for some time.
The effects of lead exposure, suspected since antiquity,
are probably the best known of all metal poisoning; the first study linking lead poisoning and violent behavior appeared in 1943. In 1979 Herbert Needleman, then a
Harvard Medical School professor, did a groundbreaking study showing that
kids with higher lead residues in their teeth performed worse on IQ tests
and had poorer attention spans and less-developed language skills. His article helped lead to the banning of
leaded gasoline. Since then, studies have shown that exposure to toxins like
mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can play a role in developmental disabilities such as intellectual retardation, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism.

In 1997 Masters found that counties with releases of lead and manganese and
high rates of alcoholism-related deaths had three times more violent crime
than areas with no releases and few deaths from alcoholism. (His study controlled for factors like poverty and family disintegration so that he could more accurately test the effects of environmental poisons.) Masters argues that the interaction of pollution with brain chemistry, poverty, family disintegration and poor diet can put some people at risk for "sub-clinical toxicity" -- a condition that can interfere with impulse control, lowering the mental barrier between thinking about killing someone and actually doing it.

Suggesting that toxins can affect the brain and, therefore, behavior is one thing, but it would seem to be a stretch to apply the thesis to
an assault so calculated and specific and one so
statistically rare. But Masters, who has an unusually avid appetite for conjecture, cites neurological data and little-known facts
about southwest suburban Denver to speculate that Harris and Klebold were affected by long-term neurotoxicity.


As farfetched as the Columbine-as-neurotoxic-minefield theory might seem, there are some intriguing elements to it -- starting with the toxic environments that
spawned Harris, an Air Force brat, and Klebold, a longtime Littleton resident.

The media blitz after the shootings painted Littleton as a bucolic, charmed community. "It was once a small prairie town of gold rushers and traders, where the biggest scare was getting hit by a prairie dog," a Time magazine reporter wrote after the tragedy. "Now it's a stretched finger of the big city, with aspiring families who don't lock their doors, enclaves with names like Coventry and Raccoon Creek and Bel Flower, scrubland turned into golf courses."


The newsweekly failed to mention that a few miles from Columbine High School lies a U.S. Air Force
base identified as a national toxic waste site, under EPA orders to undergo a massive cleanup. Just surrounding the base is
a 4,700-acre tract of land owned by Lockheed Martin, within biking
distance of the high school campus. An April 1999 EPA fact sheet reports
that hazardous cleaning solvents, rocket fuels, PCBs and metals used to
develop Department of Defense missiles and spacecraft leaked into the
groundwater and soils. Chromium-filled sludge was dumped on the ground, then leached into nearby Brush Creek, which flows directly from an Air Force plant to a popular swimming reservoir. Because Brush Creek flowed directly through Kassler Water Treatment Plant's infiltration gallery, the waterway was also polluting the area's drinking water, which had been contaminated as early as 1957. By the mid-1980s, Kassler
Water Treatment Plant was distributing dirty water to more than a million
customers in Denver's southwest suburbs. Records show that the EPA had been warned more than 10 years earlier that Brush Creek could contaminate the Kassler Plant, but it took decades and the activism of some worried parents to make the pollution public knowledge.

The Denver water board closed the plant in 1985. At the time, Dylan Klebold and his classmates at nearby elementary schools in unincorporated Jefferson County, an area which had been receiving water from the Kassler plant, were about 5 years old.

But the story didn't end then. The month of the Littleton
shootings, Lockheed Martin tried to limit the federal health assessment of
the Air Force site. Given the strength of the defense industry lobby, it doesn't look like the there will be a full-scale investigation into the industry's environmental impact on the neighborhood anytime soon.


But even if there were an investigation, would we really have a clearer
understanding of what happened at Columbine? Perhaps Dylan Klebold splashed around open-mouthed in a polluted swimming hole and guzzled poisoned drinking water during the formative years of his childhood. Exposure to the contaminated water may have given other children brain damage -- as mothers of a local community contended in the early 1980s, when they claimed that the Kassler drinking water was causing rampant birth defects and cancer among their children. But there are no statistics on violence among the Kassler kids, since no agency has carried out a study on the behavioral effects of Kassler contamination.

Masters argues that neurotoxicology is such an embryonic field, it's all about opening questions in hopes that other researchers will follow. As for Harris, who didn't grow up on Kassler water but followed his father's military assignments from state to state, Masters says that while he can't diagnose him from a newspaper article,
he does hazard a speculation. "The kinds of things Eric was writing in his
diary indicate that there were deficits in the way his brain was
functioning," he says. He adds that another clue to Harris's brain chemistry
is his medication, Luvox, a drug usually prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Masters' claim that Harris' destructive urges might be evidence of prefrontal cortex
deficits is highly questionable: If that were the case, every third
teenage boy in America would at some point be diagnosed with brain
dysfunction. But Masters' approach isn't so different from the way most researchers begin to approach a problem: Take a carefully explored subject, see what's missing in the
analysis, flag it, look for other clues, do some more research and present
a previously unexamined hypothesis. Even with the case of Eric Harris, what
initially seems nutty may not, in the end, be so outlandish.


Throughout Harris' life, his father worked on Air Force bases. Before moving to Michigan, New York and finally Colorado, the Harrises lived in Beaver Creek, Ohio, when Eric was 2 years old.
According to the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
(ATSDR), lead and chromium, area soil contaminants, are two of 67 chemicals
released in Beaver Creek from the Wright Patterson Air Force Base and
Lammars Barrel Factory. (In comparison, the ATSDR lists 203 toxic discharges
in Littleton's county.) According to Adrienne Anderson, an environmental studies instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, "The Harris family has a history of living on or near Air Force facilities that are national toxic contamination sites."

None of this proves that Harris was exposed to toxins -- or that, even
if he was, that it had any effect on his brain. Eric
Harris' brother, Kevin, a former high school football
player who now attends the University of Colorado at Boulder, appears perfectly normal. Masters suggests the difference may be tied to other factors, such as metal intake during pregnancy, which can cause severe fetal brain damage and differences in personality. Moreover, he points out that changes in the brain occur throughout life and may not emerge until later.

For an emeritus professor of government who is unschooled in neuroscience, Masters is quick to offer theories about a tragedy which has confounded
everyone who has studied it. But Masters has never been afraid to flirt with controversial ideas. As a political scientist (he edited the collected writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau) he acted as a political psychology expert for news reporters, speculating about "why Reagan's smile was able to turn people on and why Nixon's couldn't."

Masters' first forays into science began when he received a Guggenheim grant in 1968 to study biology and human behavior. Then, in the 1980s, after being asked by a state of Vermont corrections officer to study crime, he went to a Florida conference on juvenile delinquency. That's where he met Red Hodges, an oilman from California who had researched the link between violent crime and manganese in head hair -- an unreliable measure of the metal's presence in the blood or brain.


"I thought the idea that heavy metal would cause crime was so stupid. I
came into this partly because I thought it was wrong," says Masters. He ended up taking Hodges' findings a step further, carrying out his own research
correlating manganese pollution and crime.

In his fledgling second career as an amateur neurotoxicolist, Masters has also challenged conventional wisdom about another subject: fluoridated water. Last month he and a colleague, chemical engineer Myron Coplan, presented an extensive survey on the effect of silicofluoride-treated water to a New York Academy of Medicine conference exploring environmental influences on children's brains, development and behavior.

Researchers and environmental activists have been sounding alarm bells
about the dangers of fluoride in all forms. But, while fluoridation was first tested for safety before World War II, Coplan maintains that studies assessing the toxicity of silicofluoride on would-be water drinkers have neither been published nor conducted in the United States. (A Medline search of "silicofluoride" resulted in several journal articles in Russian, German, and Hungarian on silicofluoride poisoning, but no studies authorized by the FDA.)

Since June of last year, when Masters and Coplan landed a $50,000 grant
from the EPA, this unlikely duo has been analyzing data on children's blood lead levels from counties in rural Georgia, Wisconsin and other states. Their results show that silicofluoridated water, which accounts for 85 percent of fluoride-treated water and supplies about 116 million Americans, is correlated not only with higher levels of lead in kids, but also greater incidence of violent crime.


The question of whether toxins can cause criminal behavior
falls through the cracks of academia. It requires "an interdisciplinary link between medicine and criminology, and few individuals are willing to look at those two areas together," says Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, whose studies found that lead intoxication in males was the only consistent predictor for aggressive behavior in school or a criminal arrest record.

Toxicologists study chemicals, but not behavior. Criminologists study
sociological factors like broken homes and sometimes biological influences,
but rarely look at pollution. Medicine has investigated the neurology of
murderers and connects lead with delinquency and PCBs with lowered
intellectual capacity. When all this research is seen as a whole, it's easy
to see how environmental contamination might be connected to criminality.
But establishing proof, in a field where there are so many variables, is a daunting task.

Not surprisingly, most academics
remain skeptical of Masters' claims, maintaining that his research merely
points out a direction, rather than any proof. About the only thing all the researchers in the field -- including Masters -- seem able to agree on is that violence is probably a matter of multiple influences.

Science and criminology can be dangerous bedfellows, as the eugenics movement of the early 20th century shows. But scientists interested in the biology of crime say their field is gaining respectability. At least in the courts, that seems to be true. Lawsuits against landlords for lead paint poisoning are becoming increasingly common, and as more and more kids with lead poisoning wind up in jail, an increasing number of lawyers are beginning to specialize in lawsuits claiming that lead paint contributed to criminality. Maryland and Rhode Island are considering filing suits against lead manufacturers modeled after those targeting tobacco companies.


It may be that Masters' explanation of Littleton in terms of neurotoxicity is just
another manifestation of the human compulsion to come up with answers, any answers, to inexplicable events. But whatever the case, it now appears that we'll never know if he might have been on to something. Checking Harris and Klebold's body chemistry for toxins is the only way to know whether neurotoxicity might have been a factor in the Columbine shootings. But at the end of May, at the request of the victims' families, Jefferson County District Court Judge Henry Nieto sealed the autopsy reports of the kids killed in the Littleton shootings. When it comes to this tragedy, the neurotoxicity thesis may never be tested.

Jill Priluck

Jill Priluck is a writer who lives in New York.

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