Is it possible that America's top bankers have a synapse or two that isn't firing right?

Perhaps as infants they were dropped on their heads. In their youth some may have consumed a few too many mind-altering substances.

Or maybe they were exposed to dangerously high levels of environmental toxins as kids growing up between the Second World War and the early 1980s, when Americans were exposed to a toxic soup containing everything from lead and mercury to pesticides such as DDT.

A selection of David Ewing Duncan articles on the intersection of business and science.
Before you dismiss this new twist on toxic banking as ludicrous, consider that our greatest banking minds have not only driven our economy into the Marinas Trench, but they then set off a firestorm of public outrage by trying to pay themselves fat bonuses using taxpayer money.

The American International Group's bonuses-$165 million paid to its executives after a $170 billion taxpayer bailout-epitomize this mental disconnect. Even under blistering congressional questioning, AIG chief executive Edward M. Liddy insisted that the company needed its smartest people to avoid an even more catastrophic failure.

Smart people at AIG would be useful during this fiasco, though one has to wonder how bright these people really are, some of them the very people who created the piles of debt that got us into the mess.

Consider the possibility that brain damage has contributed to some of the poor decisions made by the smartest people of previous generations. Yet it's hard to ignore that the group now running our country was born at the height of what was possibly the most polluted era in our country's history.

These were the final, filthy years before Congress passed the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act in the early 1970s, laws that did more to clean up the environment than any actions before or since.

I'm a member of this group myself-born in 1958-which might give you pause about my own mental capacities as I write this.

Yet my brain is still sharp enough to recall that in my childhood, the air and water was choked with effluents. Where I lived in eastern Kansas, just outside of Kansas City, a nearby corridor of factories made the air almost unbreathable in that part of the city. And the Kansas River, which flowed a mile from my home, was so toxic that when an older brother of a friend fell in, he was rushed to the emergency room with second degree chemical burns.

A blood test I took revealed that 37 years after DDT was banned in the U.S., I retain inside me levels nearly double the national average. Other chemicals of that era, such as PCBs and other banned pesticides also come up in higher levels than the national mean as measured by the Centers for Disease Control.

This and other tests appear in my recently released book, Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World (Wiley).

It's not known if these minute levels of toxins have done me (and others) any harm, though there are chemicals such as lead and mercury-which tend to accumulate in the brain-that many experts now say can be dangerous at almost any level in the developing brains of fetuses and small children.

"No amount of mercury is really safe," says pediatrician and mercury expert Leo Trasande of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Children have suffered losses in IQ at the official safety threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency. "Almost any level of mercury can shave off a few points on the IQ of an infant," Trasande said.

Then again, the explanation may have nothing to do with effluents in our brains. As a colleague of mine said when she heard my theory: "I think that the financial meltdown had to do more with greed than mercury."

Yet even my generation's attempts to be spectacularly greedy have been botched. Look at the otherwise successful people who invested in Bernard Madoff's schemes promising steady and impossibly high returns, or the tens of thousands of MBAs who have gone from Masters of the Universe to unemployed.

Their bosses don't seem to be all that bright either if they fail to comprehend that people are close to gathering pitchforks and torches and storming the financial barons' castles, like the townsfolk who went after Baron von Frankenstein when they had enough of his monstrous machinations.

The only way these anti-sages of finance may get away with their greed this time is if the rest of us also had our brains damaged, too, and we let them get away with wasting even more of our money.

David Ewing Duncan is a frequent contributor to Cond� Nast Portfolio and the author of Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World (Wiley).

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