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.

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  • merkin

    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.

    And they’ll get on it just like they jumped all over the energy crisis and climate change.

  • adelinesdad

    While I was initially pretty skeptical that it could be explained so heavily based on a single environmental factor, I have to admit the evidence seems pretty tight. The over-all graph doesn’t convince me, since it could easily be entirely coincidental. But if they are finding the same correlation at the local level, that’s more intriguing.

    Efforts to clean up “zombie” lead seem prudent.

    However, I will nitpick on one point regarding the urgency. If crime rates fall after consumption stops, that implies the lead, or at least its affect, does not persist as permanently as you suggest, and we should expect crime rates to continue to decrease. If we can accelerate that decrease, that’s great, but it looks to me like a lot of progress is already being made.

  • rudi

    Violent crime is down and now there is a real environmental correlation. What will the Rethugs do now?

  • dduck

    I can just picture legions of criminal defense attorneys drooling with expectant joy at employing the “lead defense” to get bad guys a walk.
    Oh, and is the NRA far behind in explaining all those bodies filled with two kinds of lead.

  • roro80

    Wow. Wow! I’ll definitely need to look into the research before being convinced, but if this is the case, again, wow!

    If crime rates fall after consumption stops, that implies the lead, or at least its affect, does not persist as permanently as you suggest

    Interesting take, ad. My thought was that since most murders are committed by young people (say, about 23 years old?), that the correlation could come from environmental lead in gamedes or during gestation or during the first few years of life kind of making a screw loose in the kid such that that kid will grow up with a greater tendency toward violence.

    Kind of related:
    dduck — We also know that a lot of other things correlate to crime, like having a drug addict for a parent. We don’t let murderers off because mom liked her coke.

  • http://elijahssweetespot.com tidbits

    “We don’t let murderers off because mom liked her coke.”

    We might not let the murderer off, but in the hands of a good lawyer it will likely help prevent the jury from imposing the death penalty.

  • dduck

    Thanks, TB. I guess I was not clear.

  • adelinesdad

    roro,

    Yes but my point is that if the lead sticks around in the environment indefinitely, as the article suggests, then infants today would be exposed to the same level of lead as those 20 years ago, which would be the same as 40 years ago, which suggests that there should not have been a drop in the crime rate. Since there was that suggests the degree to which lead sticks around in the environment is being overstated.

    Also, here’s a study (pdf) that says that lead in children’s blood has dropped significantly: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp13.pdf (see table 6-16).

    To be clear I’m not suggesting that no action is needed (just because the average has dropped doesn’t mean there aren’t children who have too much exposure), I just want to be clear about the level of threat.

  • adelinesdad

    roro,

    Yes but my point is that if the lead sticks around in the environment indefinitely, as the article suggests, then infants today would be exposed to the same level of lead as those 20 years ago, which would be the same as 40 years ago, which suggests that there should not have been a drop in the crime rate. Since there was that suggests the degree to which lead sticks around in the environment is being overstated.

    Also, here’s a study (pdf) that says that lead in children’s blood has dropped significantly: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp13.pdf (see table 6-16).

    To be clear I’m not suggesting that no action is needed (just because the average has dropped doesn’t mean there aren’t children who have too much exposure), I’m just trying to understand what is the appropriate level of concern.

  • rudi

    Most US products today contain NO lead(gas, paint). The problem is in urban areas where old homes are full of products that used lead. No chance of Romney kids or grandkids are chewing on paint chips in old homes. The Chinese are cutting corners and shipping products using lead.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    Thanks for reading and chatting — and, in the main, staying out of the peanut gallery. (DD your post is the exception. Par for the course.)

    adelinesdad – i need to revisit Kevin’s work but my initial impression was that airborne lead (ie, from autos) was more bio-accessible than lead attached to dirt.

  • ShannonLeee

    We need to wait a bit and let the scientific community look at the work. The journal is a good one, but not a world leader by any means. It was probably reviewed by 3 people, 2 suggested reviewers from the author and 1 chosen by an editor. It needs more time.

  • Dr. J

    An interesting theory, though the article seems a little too eager to suggest it’s the whole answer and competing theories might as well pack up and go home. Reasons for caution seem plain:

    If atmospheric lead caused by auto emissions is the main culprit, neighborhood-by-neighborhood comparisons can’t be meaningful. If it’s lead in the soil or lead in house paint (which will hang around a long time), year-by-year or even decade-by-decade correlation arguments are suspicious.

    Also, according to the graph above, the correlation seems to have broken in 1975. Gas lead has dropped 4x since then, but crime is down only 10%. At some point there will be diminishing returns from further lead abatement measures–have we already passed that point? Likewise there was plenty of violent crime before 1920; it’s a little hard to believe it was all caused by lead.

    The causality argument seems questionable too. I can believe lead exposure lowers IQ, but the article seemed very quick to equate that with criminal behavior. Maybe, maybe not.

  • ordinarysparrow

    History repeats itself?…. I took an Industrial Hygiene class and it theorized that lead poisoning was a leading cause of the fall of the Roman Empire..Remember how the aristocratic rulers and the progressive decline into madness…The ruling families were most effected because they could afford the luxury of lead dishware.

    ROMAN EMPIRE’S FALL IS LINKED WITH GOUT AND LEAD POISONING

    The bacchanalian appetites of ancient Rome caused a widespread incidence of gout among the aristocracy, including most of the emperors, and therein lies a strong clue, according to a Canadian researcher, that lead poisoning contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

    Much of the food and wine the Romans consumed to such excess was contaminated with amounts of lead far exceeding today’s safety standards. Accumulations of lead in the body can cause one form of gout, a painful and sometimes crippling inflammation of the joints, as well as the mental retardation and erratic behavior normally associated with lead poisoning.

    Reviewing the personalities and habits of Roman emperors from 30 B.C. to 220 A.D., Dr. Jerome O. Nriagu, a Canadian scientist, found that two-thirds of them, including Claudius, Caligula and Nero, ”had a predilection to” lead-tainted diets and suffered from gout and other symptoms of chronic lead poisoning. He reported his conclusions in the issue of The New England Journal of Medicine published today.

    ”The coexistence of widespread plumbism and gout during the Roman Empire seems to have been an important feature of the aristocratic life style that has not been previously recognized,” Dr. Nriagu wrote. ”This provides strong support for the hypothesis that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.”

    Not only did the Romans drink legendary amounts of wine, he noted, but they flavored their wines with a syrup made from simmered grape juice that was brewed in lead pots. The syrup was also used as a sweetener in many recipes favored by Roman gourmands.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/17/us/roman-empire-s-fall-is-linked-with-gout-and-lead-poisoning.html

  • dduck

    From the peanut gallery (where there are a lot of us). I don’t fully buy the theory, but perhaps since I lived on the lower east side in a many-lead paint coated apartment and inhaled tons of car fumes and roach spray, my cognitive powers were decreased.
    Lead, partly causative for crime increase potential, maybe, but social environment more so.
    As OS,pointed out the Western Romans had a long run but the lead didn’t help.
    Now, get the lead out and get serious, guys.

  • ordinarysparrow

    dduck… lead coated apartments…tons of gas fumes…roach spray…chewing on all those lead pencils… definitely you are a candidate for fulvic/humic acid…Chelation like supplement — it binds and eliminates metals in the body …

    Disclosure–i am not a doctor nor do i own stock in any company that sells it…:) it is a good supplement for modern day environmental toxicity.

  • dduck

    OS, alas, I have NOT led a life of crime, it is too late.

  • ordinarysparrow

    dd …i would stay with the sterling life…