Sunday, July 8, 2007

The link between lead exposure and criminal activity

I've made note of this before (about two and a half years ago). Hence, we can consider this article in the Washington Post a friendly reminder. An excerpt:
Although crime did fall dramatically in New York during Giuliani's tenure, a broad range of scientific research has emerged in recent years to show that the mayor deserves only a fraction of the credit that he claims. The most compelling information has come from an economist in Fairfax who has argued in a series of little-noticed papers that the "New York miracle" was caused by local and federal efforts decades earlier to reduce lead poisoning.

The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children's exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives.

What makes Nevin's work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.

"It is stunning how strong the association is," Nevin said in an interview. "Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead."

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor.
When I first heard of research along these lines back in December of 2004, I began to track some of the original journal articles and have shared them with whoever I thought might listen. Certainly makes for some interesting discussions. One take-home message that I can leave with the readers of this blog is that often the solution for undesirable social behaviors can be found in a simple environmental fix. In this case, remove lead from the environment, and with a couple decades criminal activity will be noticeably reduced: no draconian laws, no burgeoning police state, no prison-industrial complex, no posting of the Ten Commandments in schools, no censorship of rap lyrics or videogame content were needed. Fancy that.

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