Lead and Crime

Mother JonesAmerica’s Real Criminal Element: Lead

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.

Meanwhile, Nevin had kept busy as well, and in 2007 he published a new paper looking at crime trends around the world (PDF). This way, he could make sure the close match he’d found between the lead curve and the crime curve wasn’t just a coincidence. Sure, maybe the real culprit in the United States was something else happening at the exact same time, but what are the odds of that same something happening at several different times in several different countries?

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

There may be something to this. The link between lead and lowered IQ in children seems well established.

In college I took a class called Science, Technology and Public Policy. We looked at a study of perceived vs. actual dangers of various technologies/environmental factors. People’s concern for radiation was way out of proportion to the expected health effects, for instance. When it came to lead, it was the opposite. Most people had no idea how dangerous lead is in the environment. We were taught that removing lead from paint and gasoline was one of the great triumphs of 20th century public health policy.

One Response to Lead and Crime

  1. Mike says:

    I confess I didn’t read any of this stuff, but I have a question for those who did.

    There was a sharp racial disparity in both the crime boom, and subsequent historic decline which followed. Yes, blacks tend to group in high-lead urban areas, but this disparity is very high, and consistent nationwide. Even in suburban areas, both the boom and the bust in crime rates was largely driven by changes in black criminal behavior.

    Did they look seriously at this or just wave their hands at it again?