Heavy Metal

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It is commonly thought that Vincent van Gogh was a bit crazy. After all, he is reputed to have cut off his ear as a sign of affection for his girlfriend (or because she dumped him). That is, at the very least, eccentric though at least he didn’t go the Origen route.

Then of course there are those freaky paintings where the colours seem strange and everything is surrounded by a halo. Clearly, this signifies a form of madness.

Or perhaps it is a symptom of heavy metal poisoning. Most of the paints in Vinnie’s time had pretty strange compositions. Cadmium Red for example had Cadmium in it. In small doses Cadmium — say from putting your paint brush near your mouth — can have some odd effects, including visual distortions. Halos, for example. In larger doses, heavy metals can lead to psychotic behavior, disability and death.

There is one theory that lead poisoning is culpable for a number of negative outcomes. One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is diminished intellect. Others include an increase in impulsive and violent behavior. It is possible that lead in gasoline was much to blame for rising rates of civilian violence after the Second World War and that its removal has been a factor in the gradual fall in violent crime since the seventies. As one researcher has pointed out, only a few countries still allow lead in gasoline — including Somalia and North Korea. These are not the first places you think of when you imagine calm rational non-violent behavior.

A chemist friend of mine has been taking this idea a bit further. He believes that the best thing we can do for human health, prosperity and progress is to remove all metals from common use. He’s working on organic alternatives to building materials (carbon nano-tubules for example) or for batteries. He strongly believes that non-metallic organic chemistry will be critical to solve many of our environmental and health problems in the future.

Maybe this is what people are really talking about when they say they feel refreshed and stronger for spending time in remote wilderness areas. It is not spiritual but a release from constantly being poisoned by metals.

Of course, the problem is, pollution travels everywhere and metal pollution persists in the environment. Mercury, which has horrible effects on metabolisms, is found throughout the arctic, produced by burning coal and can carried by winds all the way from China. Oddly the effects of mercury poisoning are similar to those of fetal alcohol syndrome — another problem found throughout the North. It would be ironic and very sad if we solved the latter problem through education and cultural change only to see children fall victim to the former because we have been too reluctant — for no better reason than money — to solve the larger problem of environmental degradation.

But that’s ten minutes.

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