Guns, Lead, and the Fall of American Empire

Human exposure to the toxic metal, lead, is heavily associated with symptoms such as declining IQ, deteriorating physical health, and a wide array of psychological impairments:

“Blood lead concentrations measured in more than 1,300 preschool children in China were associated with increased risk of behavioral and emotional problems, such as being anxious, depressed, or aggressive.”

Widespread lead exposure in society and a thereby increasing number of aggressive, mentally impaired, and sick people, has a tendency to result in catastrophe. A recent Harvard study reaffirms that:

“A growing body of evidence in the social and medical sciences traces high crime rates to high rates of lead exposure.”

Unfortunately, lead is also very useful to key aspects of industrial civilization, as evidenced by this lengthy Wikipedia list: in plumbing, batteries, bullets and shot, weights, solders, pewters, fusible alloys, white paints, leaded gasoline, and radiation shielding.

Thankfully, as a never-ending game of regulatory whack-a-mole, Western governments have tried to identify and ban many sources of lead exposure. Some regulatory efforts have been highly effective, such as in the case of banning leaded gasoline. However, there are still many vectors for the toxin to leach into the human environment, most especially in the United States. The tragic Flint water crisis for example, has gathered the most headlines recently. Yet according to Reuters, there are over 3,000 other water municipalities in the U.S. with lead exposure measured to be far higher than Flint.

Much of the United States relies on complex water systems built half a century ago, during a time when lead piping was inexpensive and the health effects were ignored. Replacing lead waterways throughout the country today would require exorbitant resources on a federal scale — and yet the burden is typically carried by unequipped local governments. Under the Trump administration, lead water safeguards are actually being dismantled.

The irony is that if lead continues to poison citizens, it will certainly prove impossible to ever “Make America Great Again.” And in this case, America would not be the first great nation in history to be weighed down by lead poisoning:

At the height of the great Roman Empire, lead plumbing helped lay the groundwork for a vast and complex water network. Lead pipes, alongside many other methods of exposure, caused lead to be ingested across all levels Roman society, from the common people to the elites. Even Roman Emperors exhibited symptoms of severe lead poisoning such as with the infamous, maniacal cruelty of Emperors Caligula and Nero. While coinciding with other powerful factors, heavy metal poisoning and its associated effects almost certainly hastened Rome’s decline.

Now, back to this day and age, let’s assume that an American effort to upgrade decaying national water infrastructure is an impossible request. Such a task would require hundreds of billions of dollars and unprecedented political will. The cynical reality is that this kind of determination is unlikely to come from a Congress divided at the helm of a heavily indebted government.

As opposed to organizing massively complex infrastructure projects, governments are generally better at banning things- like lead gasoline. However, despite the dangers of lead being known for a century prior, the powerful automobile lobby for lead’s use in gasoline was not defeated until the 1990's. And as lead in gasoline, paint, and other industrial uses were finally banned from the 1970s-90s, American citizens naturally benefited from a widespread decline in blood lead levels, and a following increase in IQ rates-

“According to a study, levels of lead found in human blood were reduced more than 80 percent from 1976 to 1999 in American children one to five years old, and these children had IQs that were, on average, 2.2–4.7 points higher than comparable groups in the 1970s.”

Along with a marked reduction in crime-

So other than decaying water systems, what vectors of lead exposure still remain at high risk for corrupting American society?

One particularly disturbing method for lead exposure exists in the form of firearm ammunition.

The National Sports Shooting Foundation, an outspoken political defender of lead ammunition (or what they call “traditional ammo”), stated in 2013 that of the over 10 billion bullets sold annually in the U.S., 95% were lead-based. This organization has also fought any initiative to clamp down on lead-based ammo including this Obama-era directive, making the allegation that banning lead would make bullets too expensive. Strangely, the NSSF is headquartered in Newtown, CT., a small town that suffered one of the most horrific mass shootings in history.

Billions of rounds of lead ammunition sold in America per year means that the toxin ultimately finds pathways to infiltrate the human body and environment: Whether from hunters eating wild game shot with “traditional ammo”, gun range attendees suffering from severe lead poisoning, or bald eagles (the symbol of America) dying from lead toxicity. Citizens’ handling lead ammunition undoubtedly creates many possible vectors for toxicity: through simple acts as then touching your face, breathing in dust, or environments being infected by ammunition waste.

Those who handle firearms are at empirically higher risk of lead exposure than those who do not handle firearms.

Such disturbing logic would then suggest that the Americans who wield deadly weapons are simultaneously at increased risk for symptoms such as psychological aggression, mental impairment, and failing physical health.

The U.S., and the world at large, should not let this dystopian fact stay intact.

Yet in the wake of another mass shooting, political realists are faced with the impossibility of banning guns outright. Even more cynical realists understand that simply mentioning the words “gun control” in a Congressional bill makes its passage all but impossible. For many Americans hunting/shooting is a lifestyle, the right to bear arms is etched in stone, and groups like the NRA/NSSF will always exist to viciously defend the institution.

So perhaps a more attainable goal is for Americans to pursue “ammo control”. To protect citizens from a major source of lead toxicity by banning lead bullets, in the face of opposition groups like the NRA and NSSF. Just as lead was once successfully banned from gasoline, in spite of its vehement defense from powerful automobile lobbies.

Ultimately if no action is taken to eliminate lead exposure for its citizens, the American Empire will invariably be at higher risk of collapse — like the collapse which befell the Roman thousands of years before.

Charting the digital sea — Capitalism, data, and democracy.

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