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Crime Medicine Stats Science

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead 627

2muchcoffeeman writes "The cause of the great increase in violent crime that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s may have been isolated: lead. This leads directly to the reason for the sharp decline in violent crime since then: lead abatement programs and especially the ban of tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock agent in gasoline starting in 1996. There are three reasons why this makes sense. First, the statistics correlate almost perfectly. Second, it holds true worldwide with no exceptions. Every country studied has shown this same strong correlation between leaded gasoline and violent crime rates. Third, the chemistry and neuroscience of lead gives us good reason to believe the connection. Decades of research has shown that lead poisoning causes significant and probably irreversible damage to the brain. Not only does lead degrade cognitive abilities and lower intelligence, it also degrades a person's ability to make decisions by damaging areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. Another thing that stands out: if you overlay a map showing areas with higher incidence of violent crime with one showing lead contamination, there's a strikingly high correlation."
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America's Real Criminal Element: Lead

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  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:44PM (#42509485)
    Yup. If the study were true, China would be one of the most violent countries on Earth. Rich people can afford better products, ie, products with less led in them. Rich people have other, non-violent, ways of stealing large sums of money. I personally believe that the arrival of the internet, cheap entertainment be it games or porn, and easy access to information, has kept people busy at night. And porn and possibly less stressful masturbation has helped release a lot of pent up sexual energy.
  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:49PM (#42509595)

    Not to mention the spectacular semi-permanent decline in the economy since 2007 has not resulted in a permanent spectacular increase in crime.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:52PM (#42509665)

    That's dumb. Poor people from the early 80's might not have had X-boxes, but they did have video games (Atari, Intellivision and Odyssey systems spring to mind, not to mention arcade games which were just taking off). Plus (and this applies even if you go back before the 80's) there was still TV, books, magazines, radio, and so on. Sorry, but 20th-century crime rates can't be blamed on a lack of entertainment options for the poor. At least not by anyone who 1)is being honest and 2)knows what the fuck they're talking about.

  • Re:Freakonomics? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by operagost ( 62405 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:53PM (#42509683) Homepage Journal
    And here I thought it was gun control. Now, if only we could ban those terrible long, pointy kitchen knives [], no one will ever harm anyone again!
  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:04PM (#42509853)
    Lead paint is not a major source of lead. The only reason it was so newsworthy is that it was more likely to hit rich kids with more immediate and identifiable results. So long as Chinese children are not likely to chew on their lead-paint toys, then they will get no more lead than someone in a no-lead country. And the toys used locally in China do not match those exported, so stories of toys exported with lead doesn't mean that a child in China is surrounded by it.

    And your wording of the issue is insane. It's not like they have toys on the shelf separated out "leaded" and "unleaded".

    I haven't read the article yet, but I'd imagine there is a delay in crime based on development time. You don't show someone a lead pipe and then they go out and hit someone with it. But you put unsafe levels of lead in an expectant mother, and raise the child with extra lead, and then crime will increase when he's 15+.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:06PM (#42509897)

    Except that doesn't cover all of it. The (original) article also mentioned that during the "white flight" era of violent crimes in cities, it was assumed that high population density would necessarily imply higher rates of violence (per person). But since phasing out leaded gasoline, violent crime per capita is roughly the same in cities of different densities: and as a result we are seeing the re-gentrification of urban areas.

    But yeah, it is fun commenting on things without reading articles.

  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:11PM (#42509993) Homepage Journal

    The uncomfortable truth is that there is very real evidence that society poisoned those people and THEN punished them for the natural consequences of that poisoning.

    We're talking about data here (not the plural of anecdote) and it is statistical, not 1to1.

    Before you try to make something out of the statistical nature, note well that radioactive decay is statistical in the same way.

    I predict that this will be almost entirely ignored because it IS an uncomfortable truth, it presents a non-punitive measure to fight crime that doesn't fund the police, it suggests a level of liability against GM and the oil companies that they could NEVER pay off (and worse, much of the money is due to poor people) and finally, it significantly shrinks the pool of people that others can feel morally superior to while dumping on them.

  • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:18PM (#42510135)

    There was lead in paint for two reasons. Pigment and anti-fungal.

    White lead paint was fairly high in lead and was pretty bad for kids that ate it. All the other colors only had a trace for it's anti-fungal properties. Initially they replaced the anti-fungal lead with mercury, not sure if that's still true. There was an argument for removing the lead pigment but leaving the traces.

  • Causation! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:20PM (#42510157)

    Except that the biggest cause of removing lead is laws against lead in gas, which is quite a large area effect. Assuming any tertiary effect could the same effect on this specific law as it has on the crime statistic would mean that most countries of the world would need an absurdly uniform distribution of those effects. Also once you have correlation at all the different levels, countries, states, towns, you'd need to have many different tertiary effects that in each case cause the same effects as a direct correlation, that you can rule out any indirect correlations. Then the question is only: Does increased lead causes crime 20 years later? and less lead cause less crime 20 years later? Or does more crime cause introduction of lead in gas 20 years earlier and less crime cause lead abolished 20 years earlier?

  • What about poverty? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:23PM (#42510209)

    Another thing that stands out: if you overlay a map showing areas with higher incidence of violent crime with one showing lead contamination, there's a strikingly high correlation.

    Some of the cheapest land in Dallas is right by the old lead smelters, where you couldn't build without millions of dollars of decontamination. The poor live around there, the rich moved elsewhere. So I'd like to see an overlay with SES (socio-economic status) and the lead/crime maps.

  • by medv4380 ( 1604309 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:28PM (#42510287)
    I'm more likely to believe what Levitt published in Freakonomics. They did a lot more work to show, and estimate, the effect size. This group seems to believe that just because "the statistics correlate almost perfectly" that they have a cause. However, there statistics are far from a perfect match. If it were, we would have reverted back to pre 1950's crime levels. We haven't, we're not really even close. I'll give them that it's probably had a bit of an effect, but the downward trend of 15-17 year old pregnancies correlates better to Roe v Wade then it does to Lead. Levitt showed the effect size based on how Liberally or Conservatively Roe v Wade was implemented. I'm not sure if Lead use is measured accurately enough State to State to do that kind of analysis, but you need something more than "Hay, look the trend lines match". Their map of New Orleans doesn't show nearly the correlation of Lead to Crime that I would expect if they were right about it. If you look, there is a strip near the river of "rich" 140K+ household with a 300 - 500 ppm lead range, and a very poor neighborhood in the North East part of the map that is 0 - 200 ppm lead. How does that "Match Up"?
  • by InterGuru ( 50986 ) <> on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:32PM (#42510355) Homepage

    Every time the homicide rate goes up or down, we all cast about for causes. The usual suspects, the economy, policing, and number of prisoners, do not work out. The changes are usually national, while policing and prison policies differ over the country. Crime rates were low in the Depression, are low now, in our deep recession and were high during the prosperous 80's.

    The historian David Hackett Fischer, in his book "The Great Wave" (one review here [] ) using over 700 years of British records shows that the homicide rate and inflation are closely correlated. High inflation, high crime, low inflation low crime. It certainly holds for the examples above. Fisher himself concedes that correlation is not causation, but it rules out the usual explanations.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:40PM (#42510505)

    No, you have it backwards. The upswing starting 40 years after the introduction of leaded gasoline helps the case with causation. Lead gasoline is introduced. Levels in the environment are still low on day 1. 10-20 years later, the levels are rising in exposed localities. Babies are born and grow up exposed to lead. 20-30 years later, these children are adults and committing a statistically higher amount of crime.

  • Re: Roman Empire (Score:4, Interesting)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:41PM (#42510519)

    Weren't the Romans unable to conquer germanic tribal 'barbarians'? If I recall correctly that wasn't for lack of trying.

    Read ur Gibbon etc...

    The romans were geniuses at "doin stuff" with coasties. They knew exactly what to do with coastie farmers and merchants in warmish climates. Oh boy did they ever, they built a whole empire out of them. They had no idea what to do with forest dwellers and prairie horse riders. at all. Like a cultural blindspot.
    The german campaigns were rome's Vietnam. Well either that or the isle of brittania. They never lost a battle (well, with one isolated very famous incident in the Tuetenberg forest), at least until centuries later in the demographic collapse when they were hopelessly outnumbered. They always lost the war, (almost) never lost a battle. And every time they won, they looked at their hard fought land, said WTF and went back home, until they had to do it all over.

    Every generation or so for centuries it was something like:
    "Look guys, we've won ourselves some trees"
    "Oh? Olive trees? No?"
    "Well WTF are we suppose to do with them? F it lets go back across the Rhine to civilization."

    As for the horsemen thing they never really figured out what to do with the Parthian empire either, as I recall Hadrian simply gave up conquered horsemen land. Yeah the rich romans had horses, they had no idea what to do with cultures where everyone was a horseman.

    They've got a well deserved rep as master administrators... of warm coasties. They were a belly laugh as administrators of forest dwellers and horsemen cultures.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:44PM (#42510569) Journal

    I'd bet if you measured the unprosecuted crimes committed by bankers, lawyers, insurance agents, and politicians, you'd find that the crime rate is actually quite high.

  • Re: Roman Empire (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:51PM (#42510643)

    One of the best explanations of this I have heard comes from John Keegan. Basically, Rome was able to conquer settled, agriculture lands. There was enough civilization that Rome could coopt the local government to extract taxes to build roads, raise armies etc. With its forests Germany did not have the large densely populated settled areas that Rome needed for success.

    Scotland with it’s cattle headers and it’s a different story. Each clan it’s own. Most of the wealth is on hoof – so it disappears into the wilderness. Less impressed with roads because cattle don’t need roads. Etc. Rome gave up and built a wall.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:52PM (#42510663) Journal

    Lead is a metal that bio-accumulates. Ethanol is an organic molecule that is easily metabolized by your body. The two are not comparable.

    There are also more significant organic solvents to worry about. Ethanol is added to gasoline in concentrations of around 5% and it's less volitile than gasoline. That means the concentration of ethanol in the air must be far less than that of gasoline. If you're exposed to enough ethanol to have the effect of one shot of liquor, you're also being exposed to enough gasoline to equal 10 or 20 shots.

    The idea that ethanol in gasoline is has any biologically relevant effects at all is highly implausible.

  • Re:Freakonomics? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:19PM (#42511051) Journal

    Any research done into the mass shootings in the last couple of decades will show a very strong correlation between anti psychotic pharmaceuticals and those shootings. But we aren't banning those drugs, just the guns the drugged up nuts were using. []

    Let us blame, if anything, behavior altering drugs for people's behavior.

  • Re:Roman Empire (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TsuruchiBrian ( 2731979 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:37PM (#42511319)

    Apparently the romans were not poisoned by lead...

    From wikipedia:

    "The great disadvantage of lead has always been that it is poisonous. This was fully recognised by the ancients, and Vitruvius specifically warns against its use. Because it was nevertheless used in profusion for carrying drinking water, the conclusion has often been drawn that the Romans must therefore have suffered from lead poisoning; sometimes conclusions are carried even further and it is inferred that this caused infertility and other unwelcome conditions, and that lead plumbing was largely responsible for the decline and fall of Rome. In fact, two things make this otherwise attractive hypothesis impossible. First, the calcium carbonate deposit that formed so thickly inside the aqueduct channels also formed inside the pipes, effectively insulating the water from the lead, so that the two never touched. Second, because the Romans had so few taps and the water was constantly running, it was never actually inside the pipes for more than a few minutes, and certainly not long enough to become contaminated. The thesis that the Romans contracted lead poisoning from the lead pipes in their water systems must therefore be declared completely unfounded."

  • Re:Freakonomics? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike ( 68054 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:39PM (#42511355)

    I would love to hear a scientific (not political) discussion of how they screwed up.

    Well, one could start by looking into the seemingly disproportional effect lead would have to have on males vs females if their theory were to hold any water.

    The offending rates for females declined since the early 1980's but stabilized after 1999. Offending rates for males peaked in the early 1990's, fell to record lows,and stabilized in recent years. Female murder rates show no characteristic peaks related to the peak exposure to lead.

    Chart Here. []
    Data here [].

  • by Twinbee ( 767046 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:42PM (#42511385) Homepage
    This quote from the article sums it up quite nicely:

    In fact, use of leaded gasoline varied widely among states, and this gave Reyes the opening she needed. If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that's exactly what she found.

    This is why I continue to think that experiments should be performed on half the states at a time, especially if we're not sure about something. For example, the idea to drop working hours to 50-75% of what we have is a 'risky' plan, but could make people much happier. So we try it out on half (or some fraction of) the states. Another idea is to try fluoride in water at 0.1ppm, 1ppm, 2ppm. Similar experiments can be used for chlorine or ozone (I'm not making any judgements on those or saying that conclusions haven't already been reached by the way).

    By experimenting on half (or some fraction of) the states like this, we create a kind of 'evolution', where we can filter out bad ideas, and keep good ones. Or at least more likely be able to do so.

  • by DeadCatX2 ( 950953 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:10PM (#42511775) Journal

    Or perhaps the simpler explanation is that the specific risks and effects of TEL were unknown at the time.

    The specific risks and effects of TEL were known as early as 1923, when the inventor took a prolonged vacation to cure lead poisoning. Here are excerpts from the wikipedia article for Thomas Midgley, Jr.,_Jr [].

    [...] In December 1921, while working under the direction of Kettering at Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors, Midgley discovered that the addition of TEL to gasoline prevented "knocking" in internal combustion engines.

    [...] In 1923, Midgley took a prolonged vacation to cure himself of lead poisoning. "After about a year's work in organic lead," he wrote in January 1923, "I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air." He went to Miami, Florida for convalescence.

    [...] However, after two deaths and several cases of lead poisoning at the TEL prototype plant in Dayton, Ohio, the staff at Dayton was said in 1924 to be "depressed to the point of considering giving up the whole tetraethyl lead program." Over the course of the next year, eight more people would die at DuPont's Deepwater, New Jersey plant.

    [...] On October 30, 1924, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the apparent safety of TEL. In this demonstration, he poured TEL over his hands, then placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose and inhaled its vapor for sixty seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems whatsoever. However, the State of New Jersey ordered the Bayway plant to be closed a few days later, and Jersey Standard was forbidden to manufacture TEL there again without state permission. Midgley himself was careful to avoid mentioning to the press that he required nearly a year to recover from the lead poisoning brought on by his demonstration at the press conference.

  • Re: Roman Empire (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Sique ( 173459 ) on Monday January 07, 2013 @09:37PM (#42513333) Homepage
    Yes, it neither worked for the monotheists in Persia (Parthians were mostly zoroastrists) nor for that small tribe in the later so called province Syria-Palaestina (small enough to simply be destroyed completely and the remaining people settled somewhere else, Hispania or Germania Inferior looks like a good idea...).
    And it seems not to have worked for the Germans, but not because they were monotheists. No. It was because Germans required ongoing successes from their gods and their leaders. Romans did not only killed off the top brass of the enemy, they took the children of the next-in-line hostage to Rome, and educated them there, thus holding their parents back from uprising and creating a new pro-Rome generation of local leaders.
    But for German tribes, a leader who was not getting them enough booty, was worthless, and they either overthrew him or just deserted him and went for the next tribe with a more profit oriented leader. So most German tribes were not necessarily big family clans, they were a collection of all the people who decided to join the tribe for their personal gains. Whenever the Romans thought to have captured the right hostages from the most influencal clans, the conquered German tribe either dissolved completely and the people joined other tribes, or they just toppled the ruling clans and replaced them with new ones.
    And interpreting the local german gods as an aspect of Roman gods didn't work either, because Germans didn't have a fully hierarchical pantheon. If a German prayed to lets say Odin, and Odin didn't help, the German just stopped to pray to him and went for the next god. It was no use to declare Odin the german version of Iuppiter, and the Emperor in Rome the earthly incarnation of Iuppiter. If praying to the Emperor didn't get the expected success, Germans just shrugged and went for the next one. Germans were loyal only to successful warlords, and only as long as they were successful. No way to ever reconcile that with the thoroughly organized patria-et-familia-system of the Romans.
    Thus Germans, differently than most other conquered tribes and people, were never allowed to become Roman citizens. Intermarriage between Romans and Germans was forbidden. Germans became foederati, contracted tribes, paid to keep the peace at their assigned part of the Limes, and paid to help the Emperor in his military campaigns.
    When Rome didn't pay up for the services, German tribes didn't hesitate to ransack the next roman town and look for other places to settle. The Franks plundered the northern parts of Gallia in 257 AD. Alamans ransacked Augusta Treverorum in 275 AD. Constant attacks by the Saxons forced the Romans to built a chain of forts on both sides of the English channel around 300 AD, the Litus Saxonicum. The Visigoths laid siege to Milan in 402 AD, and finally plundered Rome in 410 AD.

"Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will." -- Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway"