Lead to crime -- 19th Century style
February 24, 2015 4:18 PM   Subscribe

Lead Paint. It's been noted here before, but here's a new lead->crime connection, based on barn color:
Red (Iron oxide) good.
White (Lead) bad.
Here's where and when. And the year-old gasoline-soaked earlier Mother Jones citation

The graphs are pretty persuasive. Of course, correlation does not imply causation. But correlation does make you go "Hmmm."
posted by hexatron (32 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
We're now five years into the EPA's RRP (Renovation, Repair and Painting) lead mitigation rules program. In most states this essentially requires safe handling during demolition and renovation/repair work that may disturb any pre-1978 construction, but primarily containment and encapsulation -- as with asbestos -- is considered sufficient. While certain states exceed the federal guidelines, Massachusetts goes much further, requiring full removal -- deleading -- under certain conditions such as the presence of children. I imagine there are longitudinal studies taking place, but it's likely still too early to begin to see an effect, e.g. in educational attainment and crime levels.
posted by dhartung at 4:51 PM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Bah! Back in my day we drank from lead cups and murdered our Caesar on the Senate floor!
posted by Faux Real at 4:53 PM on February 24, 2015 [17 favorites]


And once again, geologists all over the world give each other high fives in praise of one of our own.
posted by barchan at 5:04 PM on February 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


God damn that's a convincing study.

And I love that this, if true, means that the greatest anti-crime measure in the history of the USA was ... the EPA.
posted by Myca at 5:15 PM on February 24, 2015 [44 favorites]


The original argument correlating lead paint with violent crime presented in Mother Jones seemed much more compelling than this specific barn paint connection, which seems very thin.

Unless I'm missing something, the argument is that rural murder rates rose a few decades after the completion of the National Road, which allowed farmers to start using lead paint. Did murder rates only rise near white barns? Or only near the National Road? Could anything else about the National Road explain the rise in murder rates?
posted by justkevin at 5:16 PM on February 24, 2015


... the greatest anti-crime measure in the history of the USA was ... the EPA.

Thanks Nixon.
posted by Aizkolari at 5:26 PM on February 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


And I love that this, if true, means that the greatest anti-crime measure in the history of the USA was ... the EPA.

Well ... Nixon always said he would be tough on crime ...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:27 PM on February 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


Jinx, Aizkolari!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:28 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's amazing to think of all the sociological constructs around crime and morality and sin and the downfall of civilization and then to learn it was lead exposure all along. Oops.

Also, wouldn't our current crop of, ahem, elder statesmen and renowned journalistic figures etc have been raised during the prime lead poisoning era? Interesting to see how society changes as younger people move into those roles.
posted by fshgrl at 5:29 PM on February 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's amazing to think of all the sociological constructs around crime and morality and sin and the downfall of civilization and then to learn it was lead exposure all along. Oops.

Society is fixed, biology is mutable.
posted by officer_fred at 5:39 PM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Interesting to see how society changes as younger people move into those roles.

Yeah, Atrios regularly makes exactly that point. If lead caused a measurable crime increase, it also would have caused an uptick in noncriminal assholishness.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:40 PM on February 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


the greatest anti-crime measure in the history of the USA was ... the EPA

*gleeful chortles* Totally, totally stealing this. I also want a giant poster of this with the lead/crime rate graph in the background that I can hang in my office.
posted by barchan at 5:43 PM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is only tangentially related only because I love when the opportunity arises to share tidbits of history of Scandinavia and design stuff, but a common color for barns in Scandinavia is called Falu red (or faluröd), a mixture of linseed oil, starch, and oxidized hematite from a coppermine in Falun, Sweden, the use of which dates back at least to the 16th century.

The Falun red was initially intended to imitate fancier brick buildings, but caught on as a tradition/fashion by the time the nationalistic 19th century rolled around. Without knowing much about larger European outbuilding color tradition, I wonder at the intersection of red for farm buildings and the origins of the aesthetic of lead white in the USA.

Given the trajectory of the National Road and the trade of lead along it, I wonder to what extent the tradition of a red painted barn in the USA was in some way influenced by immigrants from Northern Europe, and if the painting of white had anything to do with a community or diaspora asserting a different or new identity

(Mentioned on ask previously)
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 5:46 PM on February 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


The two most notable countries where lead is still in the gas: Iraq and Yemen.
posted by humanfont at 5:57 PM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Anecdotally, way back in the day, house painters had the reputation of being just a little bit nutty. The lead in their paint (as well as the toxic paint thinners) were considered the cause.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:01 PM on February 24, 2015


Great post. The Mother Jones link is well worth your time: it's a good read as well as a well-done article.

The conjecture itself--did we poison ourselves into decades of violent behavior?--has been around for a while, attracting lots of *really bad* science-ish articles, but the Mother Jones article cited above is a terrific read and a great example of how it should be done--both the writing and the research closing in on the connection.
posted by ssr_of_V at 6:24 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Does this excuse Dick Cheney for his behavior? Because I want to call shenanigans if that's a potential outcome.
posted by mfu at 6:42 PM on February 24, 2015


Meh. We'd rather fund ice arenas than teach children in Michigan..http://dianeravitch.net/2014/12/21/michigan-outrage-school-funds-to-be-spent-on-arena/.

posted by beckybakeroo at 6:51 PM on February 24, 2015


mfu: "Does this excuse Dick Cheney for his behavior? Because I want to call shenanigans if that's a potential outcome."

I know you're making a joke, but it's going to be important in discussing these topics to distinguish between an "explanation" and an "excuse."

Problematic and subjective as it may be, we're basically useless as a society if we don't have a concept of "free will" that supersedes most chemical, psychological, physiological, or emotional influences. It's not okay to kill someone in a passion, it's not okay to drive while drunk, and surprisingly enough it's not okay to instigate war based on fabricated evidence just because you grew up around a white barn.

I hesitate to say it, but it does seem reasonable to suspect that an increase in violent crime also corresponded to increased violent/aggressive tendencies that were below the "criminal" threshold or just were never caught.

Sadly, the lead epidemic (or, honestly, any external factor that might have caused the crime tsunami of the late 20th century) coincides significantly with the Baby Boomers, which means there are a lot of people, whether in positions of power or just in a voting booth, who might be reflecting an increase in aggressive tendencies through no fault of their own.

I don't say that to denigrate or "other" them at all, just to point out that, though we're each responsible for our own decisions, we must also understand the effects of external factors that might affect those decisions.

And in this case, that might mean confronting a very difficult and dehumanizing question: what do we (no matter our age) do if the largest age-based demographic in the country has disproportionately and artificially high levels of aggression, while being at the peak of both its voting power and its economic influence?

I'd genuinely entertain any practicable ideas here, but personally I'm not interested in "Wait for them to die."
posted by Riki tiki at 7:26 PM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Cheney has had multiple heart attacks since ave 38. Those episodes probably didnt help his brain. People who've known him for decades say he's gotten really mean and nasty in the last 15 years.
posted by humanfont at 7:39 PM on February 24, 2015


How lucky for us.
posted by Riki tiki at 7:41 PM on February 24, 2015


... coincides significantly with the Baby Boomers, which means there are a lot of people, whether in positions of power or just in a voting booth, who might be reflecting an increase in aggressive tendencies through no fault of their own.

'Course, just the fact there are more people in the Boomer era, period, all other factors being equal, assuming a constant per capita percentage of events, would mean more crime events on an absolute basis. One could normalize that, eg. using the number of good-behavior events in the same period but, AFAIK, no one collects statistics on good-behavior events.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:12 PM on February 24, 2015


Given the trajectory of the National Road and the trade of lead along it, I wonder to what extent the tradition of a red painted barn in the USA was in some way influenced by immigrants from Northern Europe

Actually, it's got more to do with the physics of dying stars.
posted by asterix at 9:15 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


"...coincides significantly with the Baby Boomers, which means there are a lot of..."

'In 1954, Americans Were Told to Paint Their Houses to Increase Their Chances of Surviving an Atomic Bomb.'
posted by clavdivs at 11:04 PM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Given the trajectory of the National Road and the trade of lead along it, I wonder to what extent the tradition of a red painted barn in the USA was in some way influenced by immigrants from Northern Europe

Just to clarify, as it almost sounds like you have it reversed -- the paint based on white lead is presumed to have been most prevalent along the National Road, with red paint predominant elsewhere. The era of Scandinavian immigration was well past the importance of the National Road as a settlement route; Yankees, Germans, and Swiss are probably the early immigrants most likely to be found in that belt. Scandinavians came to places like Wisconsin and Minnesota because they were being settled and were opened up by rail lines in the late 19th century when those immigrants were arriving (also influenced by passage brokers selling the similarity of the Upper Midwest, in terrain and environment, to Scandinavia). In any event, I'd love to see more data than Nevin presents in this paper.
posted by dhartung at 11:16 PM on February 24, 2015


I know my friends are tired of me saying this, but the post-2007 drop in juvenile arrests can be tidily linked to the 1996 implementation of the Residential Lead-Based Hazard Reduction Act.

We're in the very beginning of the second great crime drop of the post-war era, and we won't realize how deep it will be.

In other words,

1. Removing lead from households between 1996 and 2010 maps to a reduction in juvenile crime from 2008 to 2022 (estimated).
2. We've still got another 7 years of juvenile crime drop ahead of us
3. As those post-1996 juveniles become adults (starting in 2014) - we can start expecting a sustained drop in the adult crime rate
4. We've still got another 13 years of adult crime drop ahead of us
posted by The Giant Squid at 11:24 PM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think the CDC found 7000 children in Michigan to have higher then normal levels of lead in their system primarily from house paint.
posted by clavdivs at 12:30 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Reminder that Thomas Midgley, Jr. was one of the most damaging people ever to have lived.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:37 AM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thanks Nixon.

Thank a Democratic Congress for forcing Nixon.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:42 AM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Midgley had nothing to do with lead paint, though, and certainly nothing to do with lead paint used on barns in the 1880s (he was born in 1889). He did have a terrible effect on the environment, but we can't blame him for all our problems with lead.

What were we as a species thinking, though? "We've got this material that we have known for literally thousands of years to be toxic. What to do... I know! Let's smear it on the walls of our houses, on the barns where we store food and keep animals raised for food, and blow it out our car tailpipes!"
posted by Anne Neville at 8:20 AM on February 25, 2015


To be fair, Scandinavians, Swedes in particular, had been emigrating to the midatlantic USA in smaller swells since the 1600s and influencing the culture of the area, before the surge to the Midwest in the 19th century.

And while, yes, regardless of cultural origin, red is generally the cheapest color for making paint because of the source materials, it would be fascinating to read a anthropological study about the use of the color white along the National Road. Trends can sometimes indicate a desire to align identity with an in-group, or distinguish oneself from the crowd. There might be a great story behind how the white lead paint trend got its momentum.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:54 AM on February 25, 2015


Of course, correlation does not imply causation

Consistent correlation is pretty much the only thing that can imply causation. It cannot absolutely prove causation, but it certainly implies it. Indeed, the only empirical "proofs" of causation available to us are demonstrations of consistent correlation under variant conditions.
posted by yoink at 9:35 AM on February 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


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