Skip

The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo - Early Childhood Lead Exposure and Criminal Activity Later In Life
July 8, 2007 3:14 PM   Subscribe

...Although crime did fall dramatically in New York during Giuliani's tenure, a broad range of scientific research has emerged in recent years to show that the mayor deserves only a fraction of the credit that he claims. The most compelling information has come from an economist in Fairfax who has argued in a series of little-noticed papers that the "New York miracle" was caused by local and federal efforts decades earlier to reduce lead poisoning. The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children's exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives. What makes Nevin's work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries...
Research Links Lead Exposure, Criminal Activity
Research Links Childhood Lead Exposure to Changes in Violent Crime Rates Throughout the 20th Century    (PDF)
posted by y2karl (56 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah, but does lead account for the availability of porn and strippers? Huh?
posted by delmoi at 3:19 PM on July 8, 2007


y2karl, I love all your FPPs.
posted by 999 at 3:27 PM on July 8, 2007


"lead poisoning" makes me think of the euphamism for shooting someone... in that sense, the decline in crime was both caused by and a cause of a decline in lead poisoning.

I was wondering how the researcher explained disproportionately high crime rates among African Americans when I ran across this:

"Nevin's finding may even account for phenomena he did not set out to address. His theory addresses why rates of violent crime among black adolescents from inner-city neighborhoods have declined faster than the overall crime rate -- lead amelioration programs had the biggest impact on the urban poor. Children in inner-city neighborhoods were the ones most likely to be poisoned by lead, because they were more likely to live in substandard housing that had lead paint and because public housing projects were often situated near highways."
posted by jonson at 3:29 PM on July 8, 2007


Well that just blows my mind. Lead poisoning? You learn something new every day.
posted by nola at 3:29 PM on July 8, 2007


*munches paint chips*
posted by quonsar at 3:35 PM on July 8, 2007


Well, I would have preferred if the article had a detailed explanation of why lead poisoning causes criminality, rather than is correlated with it.

I mean, DC has a lot of crime and DC has a huge lead problem with the drinking water. It could explain the district's criminal problems, or it could be that simply DC has a totally non-functional local government which ignores necessary upgrades to the water and sewage systems, as well as being unable to handle the crime problem at the same time.

The study may be correct. Heck, it's probably correct, since the researcher is likely competent enough to separate causative effects from mere correlations. However, Washington Post article itself doesn't map it out for the readers.
posted by deanc at 3:43 PM on July 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


If my cat's poop can brainwash me, I'm sure the lead paint smoothie's I remember fondly from childhood could have something to do with this never ending rage.
posted by nomisxid at 3:44 PM on July 8, 2007


This is just plumb crazy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:44 PM on July 8, 2007 [9 favorites]


So the day I melted a bunch of old fishing weights, poured them in a mold, and took the resultant object to school with me, carrying it around all day until my hands were literally black...that explains why I'm so angry?

Very interesting stuff, thanks y2karl.
posted by maxwelton at 3:46 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


*munches paint chips*

Goddamnit, quonsar! How many times have I asked you to stay the fuck out of my snacks? I was saving those for the BBQ!
posted by loquacious at 3:51 PM on July 8, 2007


Ecological fallacy.
posted by docgonzo at 3:52 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was going to comment about how lead might explain the high levels of violence which plagued ancient Rome, but then I found a link which says that there's considerable debate on the matter.
posted by Kattullus at 3:56 PM on July 8, 2007


I can see how reduced exposure to lead can easily correlate to reduced crime by way of the same social and civil development that seeks to reduce any harm to the general population. The same could perhaps be said for vaccinations or street lighting. I appreciate the abortion theory more or less because forcing unwanted children contradicts the mother's natural instincts to abort.
posted by Brian B. at 3:56 PM on July 8, 2007


Other takes:

Bowling, "The rise and fall of New York murder: zero tolerance or crack's decline?" (link)

Blumstein et al. "The rise and decline of homicide - and why" (link)
posted by docgonzo at 3:57 PM on July 8, 2007


Brain damage from lead poisoning sounds plausible to me, given that a lot of the crime they're talking about is stupid petty shit like "He dissed my shoes so I stabbed him (in front of 20 witnesses in broad daylight)."
posted by davy at 4:21 PM on July 8, 2007


An interesting theory.

Though I'm reasonably sure there will always be criminals provided there is law written (or otherwise) to define crimes.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 4:23 PM on July 8, 2007




it could be that simply DC has a totally non-functional local government

maybe the feds should run it instead

oh ...

never mind
posted by pyramid termite at 4:39 PM on July 8, 2007


There was an old Star Trek episode just like this. The upper class lived in cities in the clouds and the lower class lived on the planet and worked in mines. "Everyone knows they are nothing but criminals" the upper class would say. Captain Kirk proves that there is something in the mines affecting their personalities, causing the criminal behavior.

Everyone should know by now that correlation is not the same as cause and effect. Didn't anyone learn their lessons from the old "night light--poor eyesight" correlation that scared parents for years? (It turned out that parents with poor eyesight were more likely to put night lights in their children's rooms. The kids were more likely to have bad eysight because their parents had poor eyesight).
posted by eye of newt at 5:01 PM on July 8, 2007


You know who else nibbled paint chips besides quonsar?
posted by stirfry at 5:18 PM on July 8, 2007


The FPP articles refer to Rick Nevin's 2007 publication in the journal Environmental Research, "Understanding international crime trends: The legacy of preschool lead exposure." His tables have an awful lot of really small p values, but I'm still a bit skeptical about the whole thing.

Side note: the affiliation Rick Nevin provides in the journal is the National Center for Healthy Housing.
posted by zennie at 5:39 PM on July 8, 2007


They deal with the abortion theory in the WaPo article:
It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime" in the 1990s, Nevin said. "But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early '70s and started falling in the late '70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or '87.

We got rid of lead in petrol in my country some time in the late 80s early 90s. I wonder if we'll see a drop in the crime rate soon?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:49 PM on July 8, 2007


This gives me a rather totalitarian idea, if environmental factors can increase crime, can they also decrease it? Why not put anti-depressants in tap water or something like that? I don't think it could happen in the U.S. but it would certainly be doable in China.
posted by delmoi at 5:50 PM on July 8, 2007


Hmm, it seems New Zealand phased it out in 1996 - I could have sworn it was earlier than that. I eagerly await the violent crime drop of 2016...

... mind you the local refiners are selling us petrol with a lot more benzene in to boost the octane rating, so maybe I'll be dead from cancer by then :)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:51 PM on July 8, 2007


delmoi, from what I'm hearing about wastewater and piss, we already DO have anti-depressants in the tap water. And birth control pills too!
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:52 PM on July 8, 2007


So why do I have ten kids then?
posted by orange swan at 6:04 PM on July 8, 2007


orange swan: many herbicides, insecticides, and industrial by-products are chock-full of estrogen. Not to mention the wastewater likely also contains man-made supplements given to menopausal women.
But I have no idea if that would affect fertility, just a wild guess by a clueless internoob.
posted by nightchrome at 6:12 PM on July 8, 2007


I thought it was interesting and funny that the lede of the piece was basically a direct shot at Guliani. Don't get me wrong, a billion things probably happened in New York City that dropped the crime rate that didn't have anything to do with the Mayor... but the Post still made that the headline grabber.
posted by stratastar at 6:36 PM on July 8, 2007


When they took lead out of the pencils I stopped stabbing people with them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:41 PM on July 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Leading lead research with aplomb.
posted by phoque at 6:43 PM on July 8, 2007


They should put saltpeter in the water too. Or do they already? Is that what's boosting Viagra spam?
posted by davy at 7:19 PM on July 8, 2007


Maybe lead poisoning accounts for why people who sell V*adRa on the internet can't spell it?
posted by longsleeves at 7:34 PM on July 8, 2007


I thought it was interesting and funny that the lede of the piece was basically a direct shot at Guliani.

There's going to be a lot of that in the near future. A brief excerpt:
Rudy Giuliani is that rare beast that engenders ill-will at every stop in his climb to lord it over the last bunch of people he worked with. And in so doing, his list of fucked-over folk who hold a grudge against him is as long as his now-defunct combover was once wide. There are people who have lain in wait--some for years, with crates full of dusty, Schadenfreude-laced molotovs ready to toss at his campaign...

...

The bottom line? In spite of Giuliani's pundit-class angels ... there is a fucking legion of folks out there who would like nothing better than to forcibly ass-pound this campaign--dry and angrily. And then turn and point at it lying there ruined, while laughing "Yeah... I did that." It's nasty. But true.
posted by deanc at 7:48 PM on July 8, 2007


Hi, I'm actor Troy McClure. You may remember me from such education films as "Here Comes the Metric System!" and "Lead Paint: Delicious but Deadly."
posted by solotoro at 8:02 PM on July 8, 2007


The study may be correct. Heck, it's probably correct, since the researcher is likely competent enough to separate causative effects from mere correlations. However, Washington Post article itself doesn't map it out for the readers.

I've long thought that there should be a full semester class entitled "Logic: Correlation is not Causation" which every journalism major is required to take (and pass!) before getting a degree.
posted by pinespree at 8:26 PM on July 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


That should be a requirement to graduate middle school. And again in high school.
posted by fshgrl at 8:38 PM on July 8, 2007


Personally it doesn't look as compelling as the abortion theory, although I suppose there's no reason why the two theories can't both be true. It's not like there has to be One True Theory for the reduction of crime in the 1990s.

I'd be interested for some of the proponents of the abortion theory to look at Britain and see if it's really a point against the theory generally, or if there's some sort of significant confounding factor going on. (Maybe some Britons can weigh in, but last I spoke to my relatives over there, the crime problem seemed like it was also a 'youth problem,' and might have some economic origins.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:53 PM on July 8, 2007


orange swan - So why do I have ten kids then?

Hormone-based birth control tricks the body into thinking that it's not ready to let a parasite implant into an uterus that's ready for one.

Small amounts of estrogen increase secondary sex characteristics in women.

You have ten kids (hehe) because the contaminated water has made you hot.
posted by porpoise at 8:55 PM on July 8, 2007


delmoi, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?

paulsc: I mean, DC has a lot of crime and DC has a huge lead problem with the drinking water.

When the big "lead in our water" story hit DC, I called the hotline WASA set up and checked their website and was told by both that my building did not have lead service lines. Then three years later, and a week before I moved out of DC for good, I got a pamphlet from WASA explaining that I had lead service lines that were due for replacement. The pamphlet gave helpful hints on how to live with the lead service lines while reducing my exposure to lead in my water supply; which was a sad consolation years after they told me that I didn't have to worry about it. DC has it's problems and it has it's meta-problems, but not many people chasing solutions seems to know which policies lead to palliative relief and which lead to a cure.

Kadin2048: It's not like there has to be One True Theory for the reduction of crime in the 1990s.

Some people are advocating a One True Theory that states that Rudy did it all. This post show that there are some researchers finding interesting ways of calling him out on that bullshit.
posted by peeedro at 9:09 PM on July 8, 2007


NASCAR voluntarially ends its 37 year exemption from the clean air act.

They tested 47 people -- including pit-crew members and mechanics -- after a race in Indianapolis and found higher levels of lead in their bloodstreams, as well as more symptoms linked to lead exposure. Like ...road rage?
posted by acro at 9:15 PM on July 8, 2007


It sounds interesting, as far as theories go, but I'd want to see some stronger neurological corelation between "lead exposure" and "violent crime" before I got less skeptical about it.

Otherwise, you could just as easily replace "lead" with "sunspots", "above-ground nuclear testing" or "MSG in baby food" or whatever.
posted by Avenger at 9:23 PM on July 8, 2007


Brain damage from lead poisoning sounds plausible to me, given that a lot of the crime they're talking about is stupid petty shit like "He dissed my shoes so I stabbed him (in front of 20 witnesses in broad daylight)."

What the fuck?
posted by Shakeer at 11:41 PM on July 8, 2007


Yes, they have only shown correlation and not established a causal relationship, but to me it seems a pretty convincing case: We know lead poisoning screws with your brain, and symptoms include irritability. I don't believe there's likely to be a confounding variable (which would basically mean that lead poisoning and violent crime both have the same root cause.)

In public health sorts of questions like this, it's often impossible to do better than establish a strong correlation - actually doing a controlled study of wide-spread low grade lead poisoning is obviously not possible.
posted by aubilenon at 1:26 AM on July 9, 2007


Ive read frakonomics and thought it was a very interesting book and thought the abortion argument was a much more convincing argument than this lead one.


Looking at english crime rates they do in fact seem to have started going down quite dramatically in 1995 according to this page of statistics here. The brits however seem to have got off to an earlier start than the americans with legalized abortion, stats here , which by quickly looking at the data shows that roughly crime started going down when the unborn children of mothers in the UK who would otherwise have had their kids were turning roughly 25 rather than 17 (the age a criminal becomes primetime and starts comitting their most serious crimes in the USA). So basically the data is inconclusive and needs someone more experienced than me to draw cause and effect but like i said crime rates do appear to have gone down in the UK in the 90's - just a little later than in the U.S. - thats all.
posted by benny at 4:13 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


A good take by hilzoy of Obsidian Wings. There's a lot in there, but here's an excerpt:
I think that if this research pans out, the case for a very serious government program of lead abatement aimed at eliminating most sources of lead poisoning would be quite strong. Moreover, I would think that the arguments for it would appeal to both liberals and conservatives. We already know that lead poisoning causes mental retardation, and lowers IQ by 7 points even at comparatively low levels. That, by itself, would seem to be a good reason to do something about it: after all, the kids who are less intelligent than they would otherwise be are in no way responsible for choosing to live in a lead poisoned house, and yet they will be stuck with the effects for their entire lives. Moreover, their parents, who can choose where to live, might not have the option of living in lead-free houses: in Baltimore, for instance, 95% of houses built before 1978 have lead paint, and in a lot of poor neighborhoods, most of the houses are from before 1978, so there really aren't a lot of other options. Keeping kids from being needlessly retarded through no fault of their own seems, to me, like something we obviously ought to do.
There's more in there, such as the conservative case for removing lead from the environment and personal responsibility and lead poisoning.
posted by Kattullus at 4:48 AM on July 9, 2007


benny has a point... but most people would hate to admit the connection between abortion and lower crime rates.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:59 AM on July 9, 2007


I've long thought that there should be a full semester class entitled "Logic: Correlation is not Causation" which every journalism major is required to take (and pass!) before getting a degree.

The interweb is now far more full of people who have no idea what correlation is good for, since they've thrown the cor-not-caus tool in with their grab bag of ad hom, slippery slope, and straw man accusations, rightly levelled or not.

Maybe less people decided to commit crimes in the 1990s. Free will much?
posted by dreamsign at 5:32 AM on July 9, 2007


*takes swig of tap water*

I'll kick any one of you little pinko hippies square in the nuts if you don't shut the fuck up about DC water!
posted by Pollomacho at 5:33 AM on July 9, 2007


I don't believe there's likely to be a confounding variable (which would basically mean that lead poisoning and violent crime both have the same root cause.) - aubilenon

Lead exposure and violent crime are both correlated with socioeconomic status. I will be so bold as to suggest that poverty is a determinant of lead exposure (substandard housing) and crime (hopelessness, lack of opportunity). I take your meaning though, to be that there's not some other weird thing like sunspots or looking at goldfish that results in increased criminal behavior, etc.

And yes, you're right, we cannot do a prospective study that involves willful infliction of irreversible and debilitating neurological harm on subjects. You know who sanctioned prospective studies that involved the willful infliction of irreversible and debilitating neurological harm on subjects?
posted by Mister_A at 6:49 AM on July 9, 2007


Side note: the affiliation Rick Nevin provides in the journal is the National Center for Healthy Housing.

That probably bears repeating..
posted by Chuckles at 8:47 AM on July 9, 2007


.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:37 AM on July 9, 2007


i_am_joe's_spleen: We got rid of lead in petrol in my country some time in the late 80s early 90s. I wonder if we'll see a drop in the crime rate soon?

According to one of Nevin's charts, lead emissions started leveling off around 1975 in New Zealand, and exposure began to really decrease after 1980. Nevin claims an 18-19 year lag, so according to his theory crime rates should have peaked between 1993 and 1997.
posted by zennie at 11:45 AM on July 9, 2007



* Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), Assessment of Lead -- The Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) contains summaries of hazard assessments and EPA regulatory information on over 500 specific chemicals. It is a key source for descriptive and quantitative hazard/risk information, such as oral reference dose and inhalation reference concentrations for chronic, non-carcinogenic health effects; oral slope factors and unit risk for chronic exposure to carcinogens; EPA drinking water health advisories; and summaries of EPA regulatory actions. The system is useful in the risk assessment process.

* ATSDR ToxFAQs(TM) for Lead Exit Disclaimer -- ToxFAQs(TM), produced by the The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is a series of summaries about hazardous substances being developed by the ATSDR Division of Toxicology. Information for this series is excerpted from the ATSDR Toxicological Profiles and Public Health Statements. Each fact sheet serves as a quick and easy to understand guide. Answers are provided to the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about exposure to hazardous substances found around hazardous waste sites and the effects of exposure on human health.

* CDC National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals Exit Disclaimer -- The Centers for Disease Conctrol’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (including lead) is a new publication that will provide an ongoing assessment of the U.S. population's exposure to environmental chemicals using biomonitoring. For this Report, an environmental chemical means a chemical compound or chemical element present in air, water, soil, dust, food, or other environmental media. Biomonitoring is the assessment of human exposure to chemicals by measuring thechemicals or their metabolites in human specimens, such as blood or urine.
::via Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program
posted by acro at 1:29 PM on July 9, 2007


I'd be interested for some of the proponents of the abortion theory to look at Britain and see if it's really a point against the theory generally, or if there's some sort of significant confounding factor going on. (Maybe some Britons can weigh in, but last I spoke to my relatives over there, the crime problem seemed like it was also a 'youth problem,' and might have some economic origins.)

Realistically, abortions have been readly available in the UK since the 40s or 50s (according to my old Irish medical doc grandpa) so I think that theory is a bunch of crap myself.
posted by fshgrl at 11:41 PM on July 9, 2007


OK, let me see if I can sum this up:
I can eat the paint chips, but not the old ones? Or else I'll have to kick your ass?
hmmmmm.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:09 AM on July 10, 2007


geez, is it just me, or have some recently started using the "correlation ≠ causation" line to argue that correlation itself refutes the possibility of causation? 'cause if so, there just don't seem to be no bottom to the depths of human silliness out here on the interwebs...

seriously, tho, as someone pointed out up-thread, it's pretty well established that lead exposure can cause neurological problems including mental retardation, diminished impulse-control, and increased irritability. so it's not like lead exposure wasn't already known to contribute to exactly the kinds of mental problems most closely associated with impulsive violent behavior. so if close statistical correlations between environmental lead exposure and statistical patterns of violent criminality do obtain, inferring some degree of causation between the two doesn't seem like the kind of conceptual leap that can casually be refuted with one broad sweep of the magic "correlation ≠ causation" wand.

still, maybe lead exposure plays a role more like that of a catalyzing agent than like a direct causal factor--contributing to changes in rates of violent crime by catalyzing a synergistic effect among the various other sociological factors involved.

(phew. got lost in an avalanche of buzz words for a minute there.)

good find. thanks y2karl.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


« Older Custom Monkey Drawings & More   |   The Levitra Couches Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post