The amount of violent crime in the United States dropped significantly last year, to the lowest rates in 40 years. Kevin Drum argues that it may be due to successful lead abatement efforts. In a post a couple years ago, Drum quoted this passage from a book by Mark Kleiman:
Given the decrease in lead exposure among children since the 1980s and the estimated effects of lead on crime, reduced lead exposure could easily explain a very large proportion — certainly more than half — of the crime decrease of the 1994-2004 period. A careful statistical study relating local changes in lead exposure to local crime rates estimates the fraction of the crime decline due to lead reduction as greater than 90%.
And there appears to be a good deal of research to support this argument:
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.
“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”
Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…
Many other theories have emerged to try to explain the crime decline. In the 2005 book “Freakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner said the legalization of abortion in 1973 had eliminated “unwanted babies” who would have become violent criminals. Other experts credited lengthy prison terms for violent offenders, or demographic changes, socioeconomic factors, and the fall of drug epidemics. New theories have emerged as crime rates have inched up in recent years.
Most of the theories have been long on intuition and short on evidence. Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.
Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.
“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.
“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”
And it isn’t just crime rates. Childhood exposure to lead also dramatically affects IQ and school achievement. And while New York may have cleaned up their lead problem, a lot of other cities have not. Detroit, for example, still has a serious problem with old lead paint on houses and lead in the soil. Fixing that problem could be an enormous boon in any number of ways.