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Lead and Crime

From Pinker's Better Angels I learned of the OECD-wide rise in crime rates in the 1960s and the fall in the 1990s. He wasn't sure why, and even speculated about Sixties values and disrespect for authority having an effect. Elsewhere, I've heard of childhood lead exposure being connected ot IQ drops and higher crime rates. But this makes it sound like a much more solid case, and one with primary responsibility for the crime wave. It's long, and in two parts, but well worth reading.

A few snips:

Like many good theories, the gasoline lead hypothesis helps explain some things we might not have realized even needed explaining. For example, murder rates have always been higher in big cities than in towns and small cities. We're so used to this that it seems unsurprising, but Nevin points out that it might actually have a surprising explanation—because big cities have lots of cars in a small area, they also had high densities of atmospheric lead during the postwar era. But as lead levels in gasoline decreased, the differences between big and small cities largely went away. And guess what? The difference in murder rates went away too. Today, homicide rates are similar in cities of all sizes. It may be that violent crime isn't an inevitable consequence of being a big city after all.


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.

Mark Laidlaw, a doctoral student who has worked with Mielke, explains how this works: People and pets track lead dust from soil into houses, where it's ingested by small children via hand-to-mouth contact. Ditto for lead dust generated by old paint inside houses. This dust cocktail is where most lead exposure today comes from.


Put this all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of.

And one thought of my own: could America's higher rates of violent crime be connected to our greater car culture? I don't know how far that goes: these days our homicide rate is high but I'm not sure our other crime rates are relatively high, and all that suburban building might have brought lots of people to new 'clean' soil. But worth a thought.

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2013 01:40 am (UTC)
Fascinating. One of the theories I've seen tossed around about lower crime rate in the 1990s suggests the legalization of abortion as a possible cause. Maybe those more likely to be criminals simply aren't being born. Could be straight socioeconomic, or maybe the ability to see consequences is a heritable trait and someone who lacks the foresight to see cause and effect regarding sex, birth control, and pregnancy may have children with have a similar lack of foresight that could lead to criminal behavior.

I don't know, haven't read about it in depth. Could be synergistic with the lead thing too if those most likely to be exposed to lead are also having more abortions.

Jan. 6th, 2013 02:01 am (UTC)
Yeah, Levitt's idea. I was sympathetic back when, and the article mentions it in passing. It's been criticized, he's published a follow-up, I don't know what the thing to believe is.
Jan. 6th, 2013 04:59 am (UTC)
It's an interesting theory, but it doesn't hold up when examined carefully (I don't remember where I found an article discrediting it, but the discrediting looked pretty solid).

The 90s drop in crime happened across much of the developed world has has been a major puzzle for more than a decade. It's widespread nature immediately dropped out self-serving explanations like decreased gun control in the US (or for that matter, increased gun control in the saner portions of the developed world). Economic status theories and declining birth rate theories also fail completely. OTOH, the lead theory looks more solid than the abortion one.

The lead theory is also AFAIK unique in that explains both the rise in violent crime in the late 60s and its decline in the mid 90s, and so looks considerably more solid than any of the others.
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:52 am (UTC)
Concur. The abortion idea was always intriguing, but always seemed more like one of those ideas that people just toss out there, rather than an actual scientific hypothesis.

After reading the article, the lead explanation does seem extremely promising, though the ADHD comment seemed very speculative (has ADHD declined along the same pattern?)
Jan. 7th, 2013 11:39 am (UTC)
China should offer a test case, then. If China is using leaded gas, then the massive shift from bike to car should have the same effect on crime. Even if China uses unleaded gas, there's a similarly large shift to increased industrial pollution.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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