Says a reader of the Wandervogel Diary:
Has removing lead from paint and petrol reduced crime?
Toxin is linked to surges in theft and violent assault
by Ellie Zolfagharifard, The Daily Mail
April 23, 2014
Poverty, drugs and alcohol may seem like the obvious causes of crime–but some scientists believe we should add lead to the list.
For a number of years, researchers have been stating that the presence of toxic lead in the environment can damage a child’s brain, making them more likely to be violent later in life.
They claim that lead could be a factor in explaining the dramatic surge in crime in England and Wales in the late 80s, which peaked in 1993–and the fall in crime in recent years.
In a BBC radio 4 programme last night, Dominic Casciani revisited the theory by looking at how crime rose from the mid-20th century before peaking in the early 90s and then falling back sharply.
Previous explanations for this change include decline in the use of crack cocaine, the rise of zero-tolerance policing and even the legalisation of abortion.
But in the early 1990s, US economist and housing consultant Rick Nevin calculated the rise and fall of the presence of lead from petrol and he compared that curve to the modern history of violent crime.
When the amount of lead in the environment increased, Mr. Nevin showed a corresponding rise in violent crime two decades later. When the amount of lead in the environment fell, violent crime reduced about 20 years later.
Tetraethyl lead was used in early model cars to improve performance and reduce wear. Due to concerns over health risks, this type of petrol was slowly phased in the 1970s.
Today, the most common way young children are exposed to lead is though contaminated household dust, ingested via normal hand-to-mouth activity as they crawl.
Heavily-leaded circa-1900 paint can deteriorate by “chalking”, causing lead dust hazards, and lead-contaminated dust from lead paint in older homes.
The leaded share of U.S. paint fell from nearly 100% in 1900 to 35% by the 1930s, but the country didn’t ban lead paint until 1978.
Lead-based paint in the United Kingdom was banned from sale to the general public in 1992, apart from for specialist use.
Lead can be absorbed into bones, teeth and blood and be devastating to the human body, inhibiting oxygen and calcium transport as well as altering nerve transmission in the brain.
Studies in the 1970s revealed that even low concentrations of lead in children can cause permanent damage including reduced IQ, learning disabilities, aggressive behaviour and shortened attention span.
Lead-based paint in the UK was banned from sale to the general public in 1992, apart from for specialist use.
Many cities in the U.S. removed lead from petrol in the mid-1970s and from paint a decade earlier.
At the same time violent crime began to fall in the 1990s and has continued to fall since.
Since then, the data for the lead theorists has become more detailed. Separate studies found a statistical correlation between lead levels and violence in Chicago, Minneapolis, San Diego and other U.S. cities.
Researchers took other causes such as social, economic and legal factors into account, including drug use, poverty, policing effort and incarceration rates.
Mr. Nevin told the MailOnline: “My 2007 study shows the same relationship between lead exposure and both property crime and violent crime trends in the USA, Canada, Britain, France, Finland, Italy, West Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.
“Across all nine nations, the statistical best-fit time-lag for the impact of lead exposure was 18 years for property crime, 23 years for violent crime, and 19 years for overall index crime.
“The time lags are the same within each nation even though the rise and fall of gasoline lead occurred at different times in different nations.”
Professor Howard Mielke, of Tulane University in New Orleans, who has studied the effect of lead on children, said there was a “strong association” between criminal activity and lead in different parts of the city.
He added that police were even using the data on lead to target specific areas of New Orleans where they expected crime to be higher.
This would allow them to focus resources at particular crime hot spots where lead poisoning had been higher in the past.
Dr. Bernard Gesch told the BBC that the data now suggests that lead could account for as much as 90% of the changing crime rate during the 20th Century across all of the world.
But the BBC notes that this only remains a theory because nobody could ever deliberately poison thousands of children to see whether they became criminals later in life.
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