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In what must surely be the most fascinating article published so far this year, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones takes a long look at the relationship between lead — aka Pb(CH2CH3)4 — and crime.Much of Drum’s article is centered around the work of Kevin Nevin, a consultant working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who uncovered an important link between leaded gasoline and violent crime in 1994, shortly after a link between lead and childhood delinquency had been uncovered.
Drum describes Nevin’s work:
[If] you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early ’40s through the early ’70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.
Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the ’60s through the ’80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early ’90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.
In a later paper Nevin was able to find a lag time of 23 years between exposure and crime, explaining the tetraethyl lead used by General Motors in the ’40s and ’50s had led to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Nevin and other researchers were even able to find a correlation between the differing lead levels and different crime rates in different states and countries.
Scientific studies have also found a link, with Drum writing that one expert’s summary of research showing that “even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ. And right there, you’ve practically defined the profile of a violent young offender.”
There are two big reasons why this is all so important.
First, it would turn everything we know about what ended the ’80s crime wave in cities like New York on its head: Suddenly Rudy Giuliani’s championing of the “broken windows” theory doesn’t appear so impressive. Drum even posits that a belief in social-based theories of crime fighting may be why the lead theory isn’t more widely known at present:
Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the ’60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue.
There’s another big reason though. While lead from cars may not be the huge issue it was before, lead in other forms is still around, and presumably still having a negative impact.
Drum writes that for around $20 billion a year for two decades we could clean up all the lead that is still around, and could be rewarded by a 10 per cent drop in crime that could be worth up to $150 billion per year.
Seems like a good deal.
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