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Years ago when I was a legal aid lawyer I was always cross-examining psychiatrists in connection with Civil Commitment Hearings.  I got to know one well and he speculated once that some of the cause of mental diseases like schizophrenia might be environmental.  In fact, he suggested that there might be some cause between lead exposure and the disease.  He said this in the mid-90's, and said he thought the effects of childhood exposure to lead might be far greater than people understood.

To be honest, it was the first time someone explained the connection between lead and brain development.  I know, of course, that we had taken lead out of gasoline and paint, but the battle over lead was fought before my time. I did not then understand just how lead effects brain development.  

Since that time I have on occasion made it a point to check to see if he is right.  There was one study done in 2004 that suggested a strong link between prenatal lead exposure and schizophrenia - but I am not aware of any more detailed findings.

What there is significant evidence for is a link between lead exposure and murder - and here the evidence is pretty overwhelming.  I am going to review this in a second, but it is worth making two points about all of this:
1.  We are forever being told by the right about the costs of environmental regulation.  But no one really ever talks about the benefits in a concrete way.  Well, cutting the murder rate is a pretty big fricken benefit.
2.  Why isn't this discussed more?  I mean there has never been a front page article here. I have my own theory - which I will suggest at the end.

I doubt most Americans know how much the violent crime rate has fallen in the United States over the last 30 years.  There are cities in this country (New York, eg) that have fewer murders now than at any time since the 1950's.  

I have occasionally noted this over the past few years here, but what prompts me to write today is a great Mother Jones Article by Kevin Drum. Let's start with a chart:
Photobucket

This chart goes through 2009, but the murder rate declined in 2010 and 2011.  Stop and think about that for a second.  The murder rate declined while the economy tanked.  The murder rate declined while gun purchases increased.

As Drum notes, when the murder rate began falling in the 90's many credited get tough policies like those adopted by Giuliani.  Some said it was a result of a boom in the economy (I well remember reading a NYT article in the late 90's suggesting this).  But as Drum notes, none of these explanations really survive a detailed analysis.  Other cities had murder rate declines that weren't run by Guiliani, and areas that got worse economically saw their crime rates decline.  

The explanation was suggested by Phillip Nevin.  I first heard of this research about 8 years ago -and over time his explanation has gotten stronger.  What he found was this:

So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he 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. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

And with that we have our molecule: tetraethyl lead, the gasoline additive invented by General Motors in the 1920s to prevent knocking and pinging in high-performance engines. As auto sales boomed after World War II, and drivers in powerful new cars increasingly asked service station attendants to "fill 'er up with ethyl," they were unwittingly creating a crime wave two decades later.

America's fascination with cars was unleashing an epidemic: in crime.

What is amazing about this research is you can add the lag time to the removal of lead in other countries - and it works just as well (see, eg, the UK).

The evidence gets better:

ust this year, Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke published a paper with demographer Sammy Zahran on the correlation of lead and crime at the city level. They studied six US cities that had both good crime data and good lead data going back to the '50s, and they found a good fit in every single one. In fact, Mielke has even studied lead concentrations at the neighborhood level in New Orleans and shared his maps with the local police. "When they overlay them with crime maps," he told me, "they realize they match up."
So the psychiatrist years ago was right.  In fact, there is really good evidence that a serious effort to remove all lead from our environment would pay for itself 20 times over.

So why don't more people know about this? Part of the reason has to do with the media and they way it reports the news.  As television news budgets were slashed over the last 20 years, crime reporting has taken the place of more long form reporting - because it is cheaper.  Part of it is because the incidents of mass murder are NOT declining - and those events are so appalling that they justifiably focus people's attention.

But another reason is that the explanation doesn't fit.  If a more secular America is a less violent America, the conservatives aren't going to bring it up.  Certainly prison companies aren't going to bring it up.  Even liberals, with their belief in the connection between crime and economics might be skeptical.  

Originally posted to fladem on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 09:51 AM PST.

Also republished by SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (26+ / 0-)

    The bitter truth of deep inequality has been disguised by an era of cheap imported goods and the anyone-can-make-it celebrity myth - Polly Toynbee

    by fladem on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 09:51:36 AM PST

  •  A connection between lead and murder. Who (6+ / 0-)

    knew!

    I know that we've taken lead out of shot gun shells and that's helped to keep some waterfowl alive.

    There can be no protection locally if we're content to ignore the fact that there are no controls globally.

    by oldpotsmuggler on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:04:42 AM PST

  •  Yeah, either that or the abortionists . . . . (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fladem, chimene

    that was a popular "theory" a while back.

    or perhaps the decline in cassette tapes - a similar type of graph can be drawn showing a decrease in that particular medium and abortion.

    •  The problem with the abortionists (7+ / 0-)

      theory from Freakenomics was that it didn't explain why younger people were less violent.  It explained why there were less of them, but that didn't explain close to the entire cause of the decline.

      The bitter truth of deep inequality has been disguised by an era of cheap imported goods and the anyone-can-make-it celebrity myth - Polly Toynbee

      by fladem on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:22:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Umm, that's because they have access to (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        chimene

        lots of violent video games and the like:

        it didn't explain why younger people were less violent
        thus they do not need to act things out in real life.
        •  You should really read the article (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Azazello, deepeco

          For one, all the studies this is based on control for other variables that have been posited as explanations for the increase.  Believe it or not, controlling for other variables is a common and expected criteria for acceptance in peer-reviewed journals.

          Secondly, the studies examined cities in all 50 states, and several countries, all with different dates of phasing out leaded gasoline, rates at which the phaseout occurred, environmental regulations, incomes, demographic characteristics, etc. and all showed the same correlation with the rate and time of the phaseout of leaded gasoline.  If other factors played an important role in the decrease, you would not see the close correlation, because it would be affected by the lack of Atari game consoles, or the continuing popularity of cassette tapes, or access to abortion.

          To believe that markets determine value is to believe that milk comes from plastic bottles. Bromley (1985)

          by sneakers563 on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 11:08:58 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  All those points are addressed in the article (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bronx59, fladem

      No other hypothesis works across nations and among multiple neighborhoods with different lead exposures but the same abortion laws.

      What raises my eyebrows is that for this to work, lower IQ and impulse control would have to account for 90% of the variation in crime rates. Only a handful of things in biology are that dramatic.

      •  The thing about IQ is that it continued (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        fladem

        to rise during the time period involved

        The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day. When intelligence quotient (IQ) tests are initially standardized using a sample of test-takers, by convention the average of the test results is set to 100 and their standard deviation is set to 15 or 16 IQ points. When IQ tests are revised, they are again standardized using a new sample of test-takers, usually born more recently than the first. Again, the average result is set to 100. However, when the new test subjects take the older tests, in almost every case their average scores are significantly above 100.

        Test score increases have been continuous and approximately linear from the earliest years of testing to the present

        link

        just curious if IQ is suppressed, that was not picked up by the copious IQ testing done in the heyday of leaded gasoline . .  . I suppose an explanation might be that lead just affects the specific parts of the brain to do with aggression.

        which is all good and fine - but then proponents of this theory should be careful not to make blanket claims about intelligence.

  •  Lead (7+ / 0-)

    http://www.ewg.org/...

    “We fired round after round, match after match, without realizing what lead could do to us.”
    —Joseph P. Tartaro, Second Amendment Foundation news release, January 10, 1998
    Most ammunition used at ranges is made of lead....between 400 and 600 tons of lead are used each day to make bullets and “a high proportion of it is left to clutter up shooting ranges.” It is no wonder,then, that numerous studies—since at least the 1970s—have documented that outdoor shooting ranges are major sources of lead pollution in the environment, and that indoor shooting ranges are significant sources of lead poisoning among people who use them.
    http://www.princeton.edu/...
    The Issue
    The main concern with lead in outdoor firing ranges is the fate and transport of heavy metals from bullets and bullet fragments accumulating in soil.Of these metals, lead is the predominant contaminant.Lead is considered the top environmental threat to children’s health.The following sites offer information about the impact environmental lead pollution:
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/...
    Gun Enthusiasts Beware: Massive Lead Contamination at Shooting Ranges

    8,000 Toxic Waste Sites Ignored by EPA; Massive Lead Contamination at Shooting Ranges
        By Mike Adams

    Firing ranges expose the environment and the ecosystem to lead pollution caused by the presence of lead in ammunition projectiles. This makes lead pollution a major concern for the public. When these bullets are fired, they emit lead particles that are then inhaled, absorbed into the skin or disposed of in community landfill facilities. Currently, very few cities are taking action to reduce the health threat and environmental burden of lead bullets.

    http://www.vpc.org/...
    Poisonous Pastime
    The Health Risks of Shooting Ranges and Lead to Children, Families, and the Environment
    Section One: Lead, Environmental Pollution, and Health Hazards
    "Until fairly recent years, most shooters wore no hearing protection. As a result, most shooters over 40 have some hearing loss. For many, it is a very significant and noticeable hearing loss. Most of us didn't know how much damage we were incrementally inflicting on ourselves. There was little or no warning about the danger to our health years ago. The same is true with the lead problem. We fired round after round, match after match, without realizing what lead could do to us."
                   —Joseph P. Tartaro, Second Amendment Foundation news release, January 10, 1998
    http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/...
    Citing risks to birds and to human health, roughly 100 environmental groups formally asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency this week to ban or at least impose limits on lead in the manufacturing of bullets and shotgun pellets for hunting or recreation.

    The use of such ammo by hunters puts about 3,000 tons of lead into the environment annually and causes the death of 20 million birds each year from lead poisoning, said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at one of the groups, the Center for Biological Diversity. Consumption of meat from animals that are shot with lead bullets also contributes unacceptable levels of the metal into people’s diets, Mr. Miller said in a phone interview.

    "Drop the name-calling." Meteor Blades 2/4/11

    by indycam on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:27:31 AM PST

    •  Great post. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      indycam, phonegery

      The bitter truth of deep inequality has been disguised by an era of cheap imported goods and the anyone-can-make-it celebrity myth - Polly Toynbee

      by fladem on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:34:53 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Do you know about LL100 gas ? (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        phonegery, fladem, raincrow

        If you don't already ...

        http://en.wikipedia.org/...

        Phase-out of leaded aviation gasolines
        The 100LL phase-out has been called "one of modern GA's most pressing problems", because 70% of 100LL aviation fuel is used by the 30% of the aircraft in the general aviation fleet that cannot use any of the existing alternatives
        By May 2012 the US Federal Aviation Administration had put together a plan in conjunction with industry to replace leaded avgas with an unleaded alternative within 11 years. Due to progress already made on Swift fuel and G100UL the replacement time may be shorter than that 2023 estimate. Each candidate fuel will have to meet a checklist requirement of 16 items that include 12 fuel specification parameters and four distribution and storage parameters. The FAA has requested a maximum of US$60M to fund the administration of the changeover.

        "Drop the name-calling." Meteor Blades 2/4/11

        by indycam on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:42:16 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  colour me as one who's skeptical. (3+ / 0-)

    I need to see more, with international studies too.

    just a little bit bored.

    by terrypinder on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:46:26 AM PST

  •  I would like to seen the neighborhood maps (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fladem, raincrow

    that show the correlations between lead levels and murder rates.

    I think that Nevin got it right. I suspect that growing up in LA in the '50s contributed to my impulsivity problems. I have both ADHD and chemical sensitivities.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 11:23:08 AM PST

  •  Yes, we did. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fladem

    It would not have happened without science, the environmental movement, and citizens able and willing to pay attention to the data and demand political action.

    YES WE DID -- AGAIN. FOUR MORE YEARS.

    by raincrow on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 02:05:27 PM PST

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