Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Poison Control: Of toxins and violent behaviour

By Prof Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

WHEN the issue of "gangsterism" among youngsters, especially in schools, made the headlines early this year, it seemed a relevant topic for this column.But because the viewpoints to be expressed were rather unconventional, the idea was shelved. Conventionally one would think in terms of peer pressure, poor self-esteem, lack of discipline and also education, as well as poverty.Nevertheless with a second school-related arson, purportedly involving a group of "problematic" students (NST, June 6), it would be useful to state the unconventional viewpoint, even if only to provide some new perspectives for public discussion.With the scientific evidence available today, the association between "problematic" students (in the academic sense) and that of "violent" behaviour (such as burning the school) is too much of a coincidence to be overlooked.Last week, this column reviewed the association between environmental pollutants, including lead, and IQ.This week, it will dwell on new research findings suggesting that not only millions more children than previously thought might have lead-linked mental impairment, but that there is also a strong link between lead exposure and juvenile delinquency. This was revealed during the joint conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Pediatric Academic Societies recently.An increasing number of scientists have found substantial evidence that environmental toxins such as lead are implicated in juvenile behaviour, particularly when children are exposed early in life.Lead is a toxic metal found in a variety of sources and can be detected in blood and bones many years after exposure. It can affect development of the central nervous system, and in severe cases, cause seizures and death.In most cases, however, lead poisoning is not readily detected, although the situation can sometimes be treated. Even then it has been suggested that "the more subtle declines in mental functioning linked to lead are persistent and may be permanent".The influence of toxins on brain functions is therefore critical for human personality and behaviour, not unlike other drugs.According to Dr Herbert L. Needleman of the School of Medicine at University of Pittsburg, lead is "a brain poison". It creates biochemical changes that can result not only in lower IQ, but also reading and language problems, as well as "an inability to sit still". Much of the work linking the effects of lead on behaviour and learning can be attributed to Dr. Needleman. He is among the early researchers who established that children with elevated lead levels had lower IQs, poor reading skills and problems paying attention. His research did much to influence the decision to ban lead in fuel in the US, way back in 1979. Needleman recently conducted a study among youngsters and found significantly higher lead levels in those convicted of delinquency in comparison to those with no juvenile convictions.After adjusting for conventional factors such as race, parental education, occupation, family size and crime rate in the neighbourhood the youths came from, he found those with high lead levels were twice as likely to be delinquent than those with low levels. While this is true among the boys, the "risk for girls was even higher, partly because only a small number of female delinquents" was studied. The study further suggests a possible link between early lead exposure and 11 to 37 per cent of arrested delinquents. Lead exposure may be one of the most preventable causes of criminal behaviour, said Needleman, whose other research also linked aggressive and anti-social behaviour to lead.Anti-social behaviour has also been linked to video games. A recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology said the interactive and increasingly graphic nature of some video games can be "potentially more dangerous" than violence-charged television and movies.It further suggests that "playing violent video games can have immediate and lasting effects on a person's thoughts and behaviour". In one study, students who more frequently played violent video games during junior high and high school were found to be more likely to have engaged in "aggressive delinquent behavior". In another, students who played either a violent or benign video game revealed that the violence-packed game increased subjects' aggression immediately afterward.The study found that students who considered themselves aggressive were also more likely to play violent video games. Students with aggressive personalities and those who played violent video games more often, were more prone to real-life aggression. Since aggressive people may seek out violent games, the researchers note, coming to the conclusion that the video games caused real-life delinquency is "risky at best". In the second study, video game violence seems to be linked with "immediate increases in aggression". In the study, students play either a violent game (Wolfenstein 3D) or a non-violent game (Myst). The students were led to believe they were playing against an opponent in another cubicle. On completing the game, participants played a competitive-reaction game with imaginary opponents. In this game, the victor was allowed to punish the loser with a noise blast. Students who were fresh from the violent video game blasted their opponents longer than those who played the non-violent game.While the studies cited above may not be conclusive, they provide invaluable clues that the problem of "aggression" and "anti-social" behaviour among youngsters could be more complex than conventionally thought.That environmental factors can impact "academic" performance is somewhat new to many of us; more so their association with violent behaviour. But now we have grounds to suspect their involvement.Taken in totality the two key factors, namely pollutants and violent video games, must be considered in looking for a lasting solution. Both are equally pervasive and real in today's environment. Thus before attempting any solution to such a complex situation it is imperative to understand thoroughly the make-up of the "violent outlook" in our society today. It is no longer sufficient to confine ourselves to the realm of conventional paradigms alone. A cross-over between the various disciplines of behavioural, environmental and toxicological sciences may be needed for a permanent solution.In the words of Needlemen, "If you don't have a high school diploma and you can't read, you are going to have a hell of a time making a living". The solution extends beyond just punishment, if the environment in the broader sense of the word stays the same.For more information contact National Poison Centre at Universiti SainsMalaysia, tel. 04-6570099, fax. 04-6568417, email. prnnet@prn.usm.my.Source: New Sunday Times, June 11, 2000

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