Mass Shooters in the Toxic Age

Photograph Source: Martyn Fletcher – CC BY 2.0

“We are engaged in a massive, toxicological experiment, with our children and our children’s children as the experimental subjects.”

– Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director, Children’s Environmental Health Center, Mount Sinai Hospital, ca 1996.

As Americans struggle to understand the how’s and why’s behind the nation’s scourge of mass shootings, I would suggest that, related to the mental health factor, the shooters are the subjects of humankind’s century-plus experiment with toxic, industrial chemicals referenced above.

Indeed, for us boomers, Dylan Kleebold and Eric Harris from Littleton, Adam Lanza from Newtown, Nicholas Cruz from Parkland and Salvador Ramos from Uvalde are our children’s children.


Dr. Landrigan’s quote rocked my core when I was a senior writer and editor at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management from 1996-2000. He was referring the then 50,000 industrial chemicals U.S. law allowed to be discharged into the air, water and land every day. Estimates today range from 80,000 to 85,000.

After discovering Dr. Landrigan’s work, I subsequently spent 15 years writing about the connections between industrial pollution and its impacts on childhood development and behavior – for CounterPunch, my news site The Bloomington Alternative and other digital and print publications.

The implications for mass shooters – and others at the root of the intractable, mental-health-driven societal problems we face today – was and is fundamentally intuitive.

Synthetic, industrial chemicals in children’s bodies – absorbed through their mothers’ placentas after conception and through the air, water and land after birth – interfere with their neurological development and impact wide ranges of cognitive and behavioral functions.

Among the scientifically demonstrated impacts: lowered IQs, impulsivity and violence. I don’t know how smart the average mass shooter is, though I have a guess. But definitionally, they are impulsive and violent.


When I wrote about children’s environmental health in 2001, PBS journalist Bill Moyers had 84 industrial chemicals in his body when Mount Sinai tested for his chemical body burden – the number of industrial chemicals in the human body. Other studies at that time found as many as 200. Today, Danish researchers say the figure has reached 700.

“Our bodies are polluted by hundreds of chemicals that are not supposed to be there,” the Danes say on their website “The World Counts.” Pollution’s impact on human health is still unknown, they say, though we’re beginning to understand. “It’s not particularly pleasant.”

Yet, through its Toxic Release Inventory Program (TRI), the federal government regulates only 770 individually listed chemicals and 33 chemical categories. All that means is that facilities that manufacture, process or use TRI chemicals above established limits must submit annual reports for each chemical.

Through the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the feds have banned only nine chemicals. And two of the most persistent and pervasive – PCBs and asbestos – are still in use and, from time to time, albeit rarely, escape into the environment.

Meanwhile, one in every six children – 17% – suffers from some form of neurodevelopmental abnormality, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, the head of the Environmental Medicine Research Unit at the University of Southern Denmark, noted in the 2013 paper “Only One Chance: How Environmental Pollution Impairs Brain Development – and How to Protect the Brains of the Next Generation.”

And while the causes of most of these disorders are unknown, environmental pollution is known or suspected of causing damage to brain development, said Grandjean, who is also an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

But precious few of the 80,000-plus industrial chemicals in question have been tested.

“We ignore this problem and naively assume that lack of evidence means no risk,” he said.


I wrote about children’s environmental health from 1996 to 2011, when visionary scientists like Landrigan and Herman L. Needleman at the University of Pittsburgh, and journalists like Moyers, Diane Dumanoski (Our Stolen Future, 1996) and Philip and Alice Shabecoff (Poisoned for Profit, 2008), called the world’s attention to the obvious.

The Reagan doctrine of environmental deregulation was altering the human biochemistry in dangerous, permanent ways. And while obvious in hindsight, the rise of mass shooters, unforeseen a couple decades before social media and readily available assault weapons, were inevitable.

Needleman, whose pioneering work prompted the federal government to ban lead in fuel in 1979, called the heavy metal “brain poison” in a May 2006 Washington Post article titled “Chemicals and Crime: A Truly Toxic Effect,”  Across multiple studies, he showed a direct connection between lead and lowered IQs.

“The brain is important in regulating behavior, particularly the prefrontal lobes,” Needleman said. “They are involved in making decisions, choices, resisting impulses.”

A 2009 study in the journal Physiology & Behavior titled “Environmental causes of violence” found evidence that violent and anti-social behavior, “usually attributed to social factors, including poverty, poor education, and family instability,” is also related to lower IQs and violence.

“The role of exposure to environmental contaminants has received little attention as a factor predisposing to violent behavior,” researchers at the Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany, wrote. “However, a number of environmental exposures are documented to result in a common pattern of neurobehavioral effects, including lowered IQ, shortened attention span, and increased frequency of antisocial behavior.”

In 2015, the American Psychological Association’s “Monitor on Psychology” published an article titled “Chemical Threats” that suggested common household chemicals known as endocrine disruptors are risky.

Boys aged 8 to 15 with detectable levels of pyrethroid pesticides – the most commonly used insecticide in homes – were two times were more likely to have hyperactive and impulsive symptoms as boys who had levels below detection, according to researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The association was not seen in girls.

“Because these chemicals appear to have effects on sex hormones in animal models, outcomes that differ by gender are common in endocrine disruption research,” the article says.

The 2016 Post piece also cited Roger D. Masters, a Nelson A. Rockefeller professor of government emeritus at Dartmouth College, who found a connection between heavy metals and crime in communities where the chemical silicofluoride was used to fluoridate water systems.

“If you look at violent crime, you find the same kind of thing, a kind of doubling of the crime rates where silicofluoride is used,” said Masters, who’s also president of the Foundation for Neuroscience and Society. “… We’ve got to start looking seriously as a culture at what we are doing to ourselves through chemistry.”

One clear effect, he said: “Toxic chemicals can destroy inhibitory systems and cause violence.”

Of Needleman, Masters and others in the field, the Post article ascribed broad significance to their work.

“They are finding that environmental pollutants are key players in causing violent behavior, as well as diseases,” the article said. “Their findings are so compelling; they must be included in any master plan to reduce violence in this country.”


Of course, youthful brains addled with pernicious chemicals is but one facet of the Toxic Age. Desperation fueled by economic inequality, endemic racism, rampant xenophobia, violent media, omnipresent weapons of war and other 21st century social ills contribute to the proverbial perfect storm for American-style violence, be it criminal, domestic, political or mass shootings.

And while political, economic and social reforms could ameliorate some of the conditions that contribute to the savagery, the subjects of humanity’s massive, toxicological experiment will be essential elements of the human experience for eternity.

Absent the confiscation of guns in the United States, mass shooters are a new normal.

Steven Higgs is a retired journalist and author who lives in Bloomington, Ind., and teaches journalism at the Indiana University Media School. He can be reached at