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Lead exposure, crime seem to correlate

Susan Notes:

A hot link to the research Greg Toppo discusses appears in his article. Here are three more articles by Rick Nevins on the dangers lead poisoning poses to children:

Validation of a 20-year forecast of US childhood lead poisoning: Updated prospects for 2010

Understanding international crime trends: The legacy of preschool lead exposure

Monetary benefits of preventing childhood lead poisoning with lead-safe window replacement

And don't miss Michael Martin's extensive research on this topic.

A Strange Ignorance: The Role of Lead Poisoning In "Failing Schools"

by Greg Toppo

For decades, researchers have known that lead poisoning lowers children's IQs and puts them at risk for severe learning disabilities and more impulsive, sometimes violent behavior. New research increasingly suggests that lead also affects long-term juvenile and adult crime rates.

Among the most startling findings: a pair of studies by economist Rick Nevin that suggest the nation's violent-crime rate in the second half of the 20th century is closely tied to the widespread consumption of leaded gasoline. Its gradual demise in the 1970s, he says, did more to stop violent crime among people who came of age in its wake than any social policy.

The sharp drop in violent crime in the 1990s has been attributed to the dot-com boom, more police on the streets and, with a measure of controversy, to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Nevin, a consultant to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, began comparing leaded-gas consumption through the 20th century with FBI crime statistics.

Researchers already knew lead inhibits children's ability to control impulses. They also knew that people exposed to lead as youngsters were more likely to have both juvenile and adult criminal records.

Nevin wondered whether millions of people exposed as babies to higher levels of lead through car exhaust would commit more violent crimes than those exposed to lower levels.

He found a "stunning" fit, he says. The trend lines match almost perfectly: Leaded-gas use climbed in the 1940s and fell in the early 1970s; 23 years later, rates for violent crime followed in near unison. He also studied lead-paint levels from 1879 over the next 60 years, matching them to murder rates from 1900 to 1959.

Nevin published his work in the journal Environmental Research in 2000; health advocates embraced the findings.

But Richard Rosenfeld [pdf], a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says there are many more factors to consider ΓΆ€" economic trends, incarceration policies and policing strategies, among others ΓΆ€" before researchers can tie long-term violence levels and lead so closely.

"There is probably a real correlation, but we simply don't know if there is a real causal connection," he says. "It hasn't been proved, as far as I'm concerned."

Nevin says a study published in April ties lead exposure and crime in nine nations. "In light of all the other research, we should have a new sense of urgency about eliminating the remaining risk of lead-paint hazards," he says.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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