Potentially 90 Percent of Crime Rate Changes Explained by Lead Exposure

IN 1994, RICK NEVIN WAS A CONSULTANT working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses. This has been a topic of intense study because of the growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.

But as Nevin was working on that assignment, his client suggested they might be missing something. A recent study had suggested a link between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency later on. Maybe reducing lead exposure had an effect on violent crime too?

That tip took Nevin in a different direction. The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn't paint. It was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

Gasoline lead may explain as much as 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century. Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

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.


23 years after lead was removed from gasoline, crime rates went up and down dramatically.

Folksonomies: environment regulations crime social welfare

violent crime (0.968310 (negative:-0.623033)), lead exposure (0.927453 (negative:-0.609386)), crime rates (0.868762 (negative:-0.275548)), leaded gasoline (0.862973 (negative:-0.276997)), lead emissions (0.722705 (positive:0.088014)), leaded gasoline consumption (0.704812 (negative:-0.304839)), childhood lead exposure (0.627239 (neutral:0.000000)), violent crime rates (0.620581 (neutral:0.000000)), Crime Rate Changes (0.620068 (negative:-0.537764)), Gasoline lead (0.541020 (negative:-0.754467)), past half century (0.537690 (negative:-0.754467)), service station attendants (0.535434 (positive:0.324110)), powerful new cars (0.524272 (positive:0.324110)), unleaded gasoline (0.521284 (negative:-0.288430)), RICK NEVIN (0.490523 (positive:0.466837)), lead paint (0.456347 (positive:0.466837)), Nevin dove (0.442693 (positive:0.298952)), tetraethyl lead (0.435991 (neutral:0.000000)), violent criminals (0.434707 (negative:-0.442044)), atmospheric lead (0.426521 (negative:-0.304839)), upside-down U pattern (0.419645 (neutral:0.000000)), Urban Development (0.418573 (positive:0.466837)), old houses (0.410186 (positive:0.466837)), small children (0.405092 (neutral:0.000000)), early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. (0.403562 (neutral:0.000000)), juvenile delinquency (0.402751 (neutral:0.000000)), intense study (0.401373 (neutral:0.000000)), behavioral problems (0.398499 (negative:-0.493029)), lower IQ (0.397415 (negative:-0.591136)), recent study (0.396590 (neutral:0.000000))

RICK NEVIN:Person (0.770319 (positive:0.010978)), leaded gasoline:FieldTerminology (0.704943 (negative:-0.276997)), US Department of Housing and Urban Development:Organization (0.373930 (positive:0.466837)), General Motors:Company (0.293178 (neutral:0.000000)), CONSULTANT:JobTitle (0.282087 (positive:0.466837)), World War II:FieldTerminology (0.264734 (negative:-0.276962)), America:Continent (0.228842 (negative:-0.433625)), 90 percent:Quantity (0.228842 (neutral:0.000000)), 23 years:Quantity (0.228842 (neutral:0.000000)), two decades:Quantity (0.228842 (neutral:0.000000))

Gasoline (0.954070): dbpedia | freebase
Crime (0.811518): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Lead poisoning (0.799794): dbpedia | freebase
Tetra-ethyl lead (0.756724): dbpedia | yago
Lead (0.639133): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Violent crime (0.526057): dbpedia | freebase
Compression ratio (0.463398): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Criminology (0.460811): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 America's Real Criminal Element: Lead
Periodicals>Magazine Article:  Drum, Kevin (01/2013), America's Real Criminal Element: Lead, Mother Jones, January/February 2013, Retrieved on 2013-07-24
  • Source Material [www.motherjones.com]
  • Folksonomies: environment welfare regulation


    11 AUG 2011

     The Science of Social Welfare

    Social Welfare grew from a series of studies that determined children and babies who were malnourished or overly stressed suffered lifetimes of problems behaviorally and economically.