Would Living Under Power Lines and Eating Paint Chips Really Have Made Tommy Boy That Dumb?
The world loves a good dumbass. Unintelligent characters have been comedy lynchpins since time immemorial — cave-dwellers probably laughed their hairy asses off at shit-thick Neanderthals.
One of the modern world’s most beloved dumbasses is Tommy Callahan, played by the late, great Chris Farley in 1995’s Tommy Boy. It’s the type of movie nobody has seen once — you’ve either never seen it or watched it 600 times on VHS.
To what, though, does Tommy owe his dumbassedness? It doesn’t seem genetic — his dad is smart — and can’t be entirely environmental, as he spent at least seven years in college. But what about, as characters in the movie theorize, eating paint chips and living under power lines as a kid?
Living under power lines is more associated in the public mind with increasing the risk of children developing leukemia than learning disorders. A 1979 study, “Electrical Wiring Configurations and Childhood Cancer,” made headlines all over the world after concluding there was a relationship between proximity to power lines and children becoming dangerously ill.
Again, though, the only cognitive impairment that’s been linked to power lines is Alzheimer’s — and even the observed link there is minimal at best. And so, Tommy’s thickheadedness can’t be attributed to any kind of pylon, outlet, substation or transformer.
But how about paint? Eating a lot of paint chips as a kid, or as an adult, is inadvisable: It’s paint, not food. Not to mention, some paints bring extra dangers, namely lead poisoning.
Despite the dangers of lead-based paint (defined as containing more than one milligram of lead per square centimeter) being known for centuries — Benjamin Franklin considered it an established fact that the stuff was awful — it was a cheap way of making durable paint, and as such, it was used a lot. Worse yet, its peak years coincided with a period of massive population growth in the U.S. and millions of new homes. Until 1977, it was everywhere — that’s when the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its use in toys, furniture and public and residential buildings. However, it continued to be used on road markings, and remained in place in millions of houses. In other words, while new properties weren’t painted with lead, it was still very much lurking within them.
Unfortunately, due to another element, the oddly named “sugar of lead,” paint chips can be oddly delicious. Also known as Lead(II) acetate (or, if you’re so inclined, Pb(CH3COO)2), it functions as a drier in paints, vastly reducing the time it takes for a newly painted surface to be usable. For a while, sugar of lead was even used as a sweetener in food and drink — Beethoven may have died prematurely in part due to lead poisoning from sweetened wines.
But can lead poisoning, in paint chip form, make a child grow up less cognitively developed? Yes. It’s that fucking awful. Up to one-tenth of what is now termed “intellectual disability,” which, of course, used to have a far worse name, a description Tommy refers to himself as after “checking the specs on the end-line for the rotary girder,” is thought to be caused by lead poisoning, a hideous statistic. According to a 2022 paper from Duke University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, half of the adult U.S. population were exposed to excessive lead in childhood. They go as far as to estimate the number of IQ points a whole generation dropped at 824,097,690.
There’s also Tommy’s lifestyle to take into account. In an early scene, he’s drinking, talking about vomiting off balconies, taking a bong rip and falling through a table. Even mild-to-moderate drinking can adversely affect cognitive functioning, as can long-term cannabis use. Regular blunt-force trauma to the head, however — which happens to Tommy with alarming regularity — is almost certainly worse.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by repeated head trauma, starts to become clear a decade or so after the original injuries. The opening scene of the movie sees a young Tommy smash his head into a glass door, then an older Tommy smash his head into a wooden fence and repeatedly bang his forehead into a wooden door.
There’s a certain self-perpetuating element to some of this — Tommy is partially a dumbass because he runs into a lot of stuff, but he runs into a lot of stuff because he’s a giant dumbass. It’s like the chicken/egg predicament but with more impacts. Frankly, between a paint-heavy diet and a concussion habit, it’s amazing Tommy is able to function at all — getting confused while talking about a T-bone steak and a butcher’s ass should be the least of his worries.