Does increased lead exposure account for increases in crime?

Take a look at this expose about lead in Mother Jones mag.

America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead | Mother Jones.

New research finds Pb is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing.

In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. Washington, DC, didn’t have either Giuliani or Bratton, but its violent crime rate has dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas’ has fallen 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent.

There must be more going on here than just a change in policing tactics in one city. But what?

He notes this research conclusion:

[…] 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.

This conclusion was ignored years ago. But the author resurrects it and cites new studies.

Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.

An interesting idea. Thoughts?

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  8 comments for “Does increased lead exposure account for increases in crime?

  1. D.Walker
    January 5, 2013 at 2:46 AM

    I’d think both lead and mercury are very, very bad. I’m not convinced that it’s the only factor in any decrease in crime levels, but I don’t have any evidence. I’d think Humanity would be much more peace loving if people just bred less and tried harder to raise the children that they do have to respect peace.

  2. P Brand
    January 5, 2013 at 5:42 AM

    Even if ” higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes”, correlation is not causation. Humans are violent for complex reasons, not simply chemistry.

    • January 5, 2013 at 8:33 AM

      I agree and thus are having trouble with this.

  3. Curtis Haymore
    January 5, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    The Freakonomics hypothesis is simple demography. There was a birth drop after Roe v. Wade and widespread use of birth control. They argued a more direct link to the declining number of males in the high crime years of 18 -25 (all from memory, may not be exact).

    • Am_Sci
      January 5, 2013 at 12:49 PM

      Agreed. There is a much more convincing case regarding the rise of family planning and the drop in crime.

  4. Phil
    January 8, 2013 at 2:58 AM

    Did you guys read the article? While the author doesn’t give references, he does say the demographics has potential but doesn’t fit the data fully. We do know lead affects brain development. That’s why this is so fascinating, it’s entirely possible. But still not proven.
    The article points out that sociologists are rather like the old joke about doctors. Surgeons see something they say surgery. Sociologists look for a sociological link to crime, not a biological one.
    It’s a well written article and I welcome follow up research, but it’s going to be hard to find since the US doesn’t use leaded gas any more.

  5. Phil
    January 9, 2013 at 2:58 AM

    http://youtu.be/c3eaG_PB5ZU
    Here’s a video link with a good breakdown.

  6. January 9, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    Here is a response to this piece: Does Lead Exposure Cause Violent Crime? The Science is Still Out http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/?p=2655

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