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Crime Reduction Linked To Lead-Free Gasoline 616

Posted by kdawson
from the getting-the-lead-out dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Even low levels of lead can cause brain damage, increasing the likelihood of behavioral and cognitive traits such as impulsivity, aggressiveness, and low IQ that are strongly linked with criminal behavior. The NYTimes has a story on how the phasing out of leaded gasoline starting with the Clean Air Act in 1973 may have led to a 56% drop in violent crime in the US in the 1990s. An economics professor at Amherst College, Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, discovered the connection and wrote a paper comparing the reduction of lead from gasoline between states (PDF) and the reduction of violent crime. She constructed a table linking crime rates in every state to childhood lead exposure in that state 20 or 30 years earlier. If lead poisoning is a factor in the development of criminal behavior, then countries that didn't switch to unleaded fuel until the 1980s, like Britain and Australia, should soon see a dip in crime as the last lead-damaged children outgrow their most violent years."
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Crime Reduction Linked To Lead-Free Gasoline

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  • Lead (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jcicora (949398) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @02:57PM (#21089083) Journal
    So does this mean with all the lead paint we are seeing in toys now, we will see another spike in violent behavior.
  • That's funny... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by r_jensen11 (598210) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:00PM (#21089143)
    ...Freakonomics correlated the drop in crime rates with the legalization of abortion. Which sounds more sound of a theory to you?
  • by torchdragon (816357) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:00PM (#21089151) Homepage
    Disclaimer: I seriously don't want to start a flamewar or anything, please keep it civil.

    The legalization of abortion also occurred in a similar time frame and also has been attributed to a large statistical decrease in violent crime. []

    Are both studies wrong? One study? More bending of statistics to make up for science? Anyone specifically in the know?
  • by feelbad_feelsgood (809633) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:06PM (#21089267)
    ... the crime wave will recede from Eastern US cities like Baltimore, where every single property in the entire city was painted with lead [] right up until the ban in 1978. Thing is, lead paint was used because of its durability, so there is no guarantee that these cities are even in the downward part of the curve yet, as the paint may just now be starting to chip and find its way into children's lungs/guts.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:06PM (#21089273)
    It could be - but the author provides a method to obtain supporting evidence for causation. If crime rates decrease as predicted in areas that banned leaded gasoline in the 1980s, then that gives evidence that the relationship is causal. It's a valid hypothesis.
  • by realthing02 (1084767) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:06PM (#21089275)
    Good points, but I'm interested in the prediction about Britain's crime rates. If they do also drop that'd be pretty striking, even if it is just a correlation.

    Of course, we'll also have to weigh in the effect on predicting the future and it's impact changing it's outcomes, which is still a relatively young science...
  • by operagost (62405) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:15PM (#21089475) Homepage Journal

    I'd like to know if forcing your beliefs on other people is worth twice as much crime?
    Pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder, and therefore a crime, so the answer in this case would be yes. There are alternatives to abortion, so your premise may be a false dilemma. How many offenders come from single parent homes? Foster homes? Adoptive two-parent homes?
  • by spun (1352) <loverevolutionary @ y a> on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:27PM (#21089731) Journal
    Roe v. Wade. Reduction in unwanted kids results in less criminals. More abortions for all!
  • by mr_mischief (456295) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:41PM (#21090019) Journal
    It's one of at least two places lead was banned in the US in the last 40 years or so. Lead paint was once quite common as well. Lead solder used to be used in places where lead-free solder is now. So if the lead from gas turns out not to account for the total, lead from other sources may still have something to do with it.

    Oh, and lead-induced brain damage has strong statistical ties already to impulsive behavior and hampered mental function, which decline in the use of slide rules and increases in CPU power do not. This is just trying to measure the effect of lead in gasoline, since lead exposure in general is already believed to be an issue.

    A devil's advocate, I would like to say that an increase in CPU power and a huge increase in the availability of computers could actually help lower violent crime rates. It's not because computers make it easier to get a job, though. In fact, in lots of ways computers have both added jobs and taken jobs away from the economy, leaving us probably about even. Productivity is higher in some fields like drafting and manufacturing, but fewer people are actually needed. What they have done, though, is made it a lot easier to profit from non-violent crime. Pump and dump scams, advance fee scams, certified check fraud, identity theft, database infiltration, and laptop theft are the crimes of choice for money now. They're inherently less violent and less risky than bank robbery, mugging, brigandage, piracy, and convenience store robbery. There's less personal contact than during in-person scams and confidence schemes, so the threat of escalation into violence of a nonviolent crime is less.

    Still, as the parent post said, the author of the study did what should always be done in this kind of study: the provision was made to test a further hypothesis based on the study. That's good scientific practice, even if the study turns out not to be repeatable. There's a vast difference between having the wrong hypothesis and using the wrong methods, and science is largely advanced through the understanding of that difference.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:44PM (#21090065)
    When Disco was at its peak, so was crime committed by persons aged from late teens to early 30's at its peak in the mid-late 1970s.

    Now we're seeing an upsurge in violent crime being perpetrated precisely by the very same age groups and subcultures of people who are hooked on "rap music" (sic, oxymoron).

    To a much smaller degree, but still closely correlated enough to form a measurement, was the industrial/dance/synthpop music period that was big in Europe during the 1990s, but the crime levels then were suppressed enough by too many of the adolescent and 20-something aged males who lived on a steady diet of this music poisoning their brains with massive amounts of MDMA and porking each other up the wazoo that subdued their violent criminal tendencies.

    It's listening to too much steady, driving, thumping rhythm of these kinds of music that drives the urge to commit violent crime.
  • by king-manic (409855) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:46PM (#21090111)
    These statistical correlations are a complete crock. There are a million things that have changed over the last few years that could also be attributed.

    Personally, I think the most likely cause is one of:

    * Reduction in the use of slide rules. With calculators it's easier to get a job as a clerk.

    * Increase in CPU speed. Too much time playing games == less time being bad.

    * Global warming. It's getting too hot to commit crime.

    Strength of correlation matters and if you have multiple cases to draw from (each state is a sample) then you can more confidently state your correlation. If you notice that the correlation occurs a set time or general range of time after the banning of leaded paint in all jurisdictions then it suggest some sort of relationship. I believe that is what TFA is outlining. The assumption that Correlation != causation is good however sometimes Correlation => causation and often correlation => some sort of relationship.
  • Re:Lead (Score:4, Interesting)

    by moosesocks (264553) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @03:51PM (#21090221) Homepage
    Doubtful. I'm no expert, but I would imagine that the amount of lead you'll absorb by handling a small toy covered in lead paint is going to be at least several orders of magnitude less than what you'd be inhaling from the emissions of every car, truck, and bus on the planet (and at 1970s emissions standards) every day.

    A small toy with a coat of leaded paint is relatively inert in comparison, and even if you scraped every ounce of paint off of the toy and ingested it, I'd bet that your total exposure would be considerably less. Granted, the effects of massive single doses are probably going to be quite different than long-term exposure, and you'd probably die if you did ingest that much of a heavy metal in one go.

    Widespread use of lead paint is a bad thing, as is the widespread use of leaded gas. Lead's been conclusively shown to be a carcinogen and something you want to avoid if you can. That said, unless you eat the stuff or are exposed to minute amounts in aerosol form for a prolonged period of time, it's probably not going to do a whole lot of damage. The people who produced/imported those toys should indeed be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but I don't think it's cause for widespread panic yet.
  • Re:That's funny... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by taude (627872) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @04:18PM (#21090651)
    A panelist on Talk of the Nation said that the link with abortion was unlikely []. Reason being that abortion was legalized in different years in different countries and it didn't correspond with the global drop in crime (in organized countries).

    He didn't claim to know the answer, btw.

    Like the abortion correlation, I'd take this lead correlation with a large dose of salt. The real answer is probably a complex sum of factors. It's all very interesting stuff I agree.
  • Re:Lead (Score:3, Interesting)

    by (102718) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @04:22PM (#21090707) Homepage
    The biggest danger now is probably from you water tap. There was a program on danish television that showed how Chinese factories use whatever scrap metal they can find to make taps. Lead is added to lower the melting point of the mixture, and it will go into the water. The also leak way too much Nickel (from when they are coated in crome, which is in fact nickel. The cheap models have the coating inside as well). They showed how everything from car parts to whatever scrap metal they could find was used. And the tubes are old tyres.

    I think that chinese products is a major danger for the species on this world.
  • by Geof (153857) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @04:29PM (#21090801) Homepage

    There are techniques to take some account of these factors. According to the NYT article, the study's author "uses small variations in the lead content of gasoline from state to state to strengthen her argument." So we have: 1) a correlation between violent crime and presence of lead in the environment, 2) support from state-by-state comparisons, 3) lead poisoning is linked to brain damage resulting in violent behaviors. Is that enough? Probably not - but it's suggestive, and with such sensational claims I expect there will be plenty of peer review.

    You're also accusing the result of being a "pet theory". It may be. It may be that many or most scientists cheat. But we shouldn't assume - with no evidence whatsoever - that any particular scientist is acting in bad faith. Do that, and we'll find scientists living down to our expectations.

    You may find the study "hard to believe", that it could "prove anything you like". If you don't examine the method, your complaint could also be leveled at any study you like. If you want better science, make specific criticisms - unless of course you don't want science at all.

  • by illumin8 (148082) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @04:45PM (#21091055) Journal

    Interesting. If that were the case, then the impact should have been mostly restricted to states where abortion was illegal pre-Roe. (Sure, people do move, but it's a lot less likely that poor people are going to relocate to another state.) Is that seen?
    Yes, actually, there were 5 states that legalized abortion in 1970, and those 5 states started a downward crime trend 3 years earlier than the rest of the states, where abortion was legalized in 1973.
  • Re:Lead (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rundgren (550942) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @05:15PM (#21091493) Homepage
    Is anyone else reminded of Freakonomics [] ? In this book, the same drop in crime in the nineties is explained by Roe vs. Wade leading to less unwanted children being born.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @11:25AM (#21100369)
    Yeah, generally, a weapon is invention that serves purpose of leveling the playing field between the strong and the weak. Prior to "damage multipliers" (weapons) appearance, violence was the way of the strong to keep their social standing and redistribute valuables "unjustly" and suspiciously of origin found in possession of the weak.

    On a side note, wherever (or whenever in history) you find a culture of great piety, good manners and treating a word of a man as a contract, it is almost certain that there is some kind of dueling or vendetta tradition running in the area for generations, based upon widespread and universal weapon carrying. You know... mothers' first law of upbringing is: carve safe survival strategies into children minds. "Be nice, don't offend anyone, don't betray anyone's trust, be careful not to challenge, undermine or defame anyone's honor".

    Therefore, violent tendencies tend to shrink if they are liability on one's life. Therefore we should make passenger cars actually less safe on higher speeds if we wish to spur better driving habits. Ditto for each modern "peril": Decriminalize most toxic psychoactive substances, alcohol included (in fact, codify high minimal alcohol content of a buzz and ban those too "soft", such as beer or wine), ban "light" cigarettes, abolish bookies and loan sharks from prosecution if they maim or kill debtors (imagine new look of credit banks...hilarious), make everything dangerous but avoidable more dangerous. There is no better message telling "be responsible for yourself" then: "you are on your own there".

From Sharp minds come... pointed heads. -- Bryan Sparrowhawk