Could It Be This Straightforward? Research Links Crime Rates With Environmental Lead

chart shows correlation between lead and crime

Image via Mother Jones

And no, I’m not talking about the kind that comes out of the end of a gun.

Kevin Drum builds a compelling case for environmental lead — primarily from leaded gasoline — as being the driving factor behind rising and declining crime rates.

  • In a 2000 paper, Rick Nevin “concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America.” He would later find the same correlation between crime and lead for Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Great Britain, Italy, New Zealand and West Germany.
  • In a 2007 paper, Amherst public health policy professor Jessica Wolpaw Reyes found “in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly.”
  • In a 2012 paper, Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke demonstrated the correlation of lead and crime at the city level — for six U.S. cities.

And then there’s what we’ve learned about the brain via MRI scans. And murder rates between urban and rural areas.

But why should you read this? Why should we care?

[L]eaded gasoline has been banned since 1996, so even if it had a major impact on violent crime during the 20th century, there’s nothing more to be done on that front. Right?

Wrong. As it turns out, tetraethyl lead is like a zombie that refuses to die. Our cars may be lead-free today, but they spent more than 50 years spewing lead from their tailpipes, and all that lead had to go somewhere. And it did: It settled permanently into the soil that we walk on, grow our food in, and let our kids play around…

Lead in soil doesn’t stay in the soil. Every summer, like clockwork, as the weather dries up, all that lead gets kicked back into the atmosphere in a process called resuspension. The zombie lead is back to haunt us.

Because we can do something to mitigate the unintended consequences of a General Motors additive designed to prevent internal combustion engines from knocking.

If we will.

And we must.

So go read Drum’s analysis and his sidebar on incarceration rates. Then send a copy of the lead essay to your Congress Critters, governor and state legislators as well as your local government officials.

And tell them to get to work.

This is a public health issue that money and elbow grease can fix.

And it more than pays for itself, in dollars and shattered lives.