Getting the lead out

Could lead poisoning explain higher crime, lowered IQ or the fall of empires?

You've probably heard that old adage, where someone asks someone else if they “ate lead paint chips” as a child, after they did something stupid or silly. The effects of lead poisoning, however, are not silly. Many academics believe lead poisoning in children correlated to spikes in crime more than any other single factor. Granted, it takes more than a noticeable pattern to establish causality, the meta-analysis of other factors all seem to point in the direction of lead.

Humans have been using lead for thousands of years. Ancient Rome used it for everything from hair dye to wine sweetener, as did the Greeks and European aristocracy, up until the 17th century: smearing their faces with lead-filled goo was the daily norm for well-to-do women. Some academics even believe lead is partially responsible for the fall of Rome, as no society bathed in that amount of detrimental poison could flourish indefinitely. And in the US, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's “broken window” policing may have less to do with his policies and more to do with coincidental environmental changes.

Or take transport. After years of research endeavouring to reduce knocking and pinging in cars with high-performance engines, leaded gasoline was developed in 1921. As an element, it doesn't just “go away,” and lead removal is difficult and dangerous. With the influx of lead-fuelled automobiles on the crowded streets of the US, emissions skyrocketed and lead seeped into the soil and surrounding environment. Leaded fuel hasn't been used in the US and many other developed countries since the 1980s, though there is still lingering sensitivity regarding potential exposure to lead. As a society, people now exercise caution when choosing everything from children's toys to motorcycle parts. Additionally, lead paint was also used on an estimated 38 to 62 million homes in the US. Lead was also used for painting everything from toys to cribs and baby cots, and when it starts to chip and peel, it is often ingested by children, for whom it is particularly harmful.

Striking correlation

Economist Rick Nevins first noticed this correlation while working on the issue of lead paint removal for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1994. Many studies had linked lead to lowered IQ and juvenile delinquency, but Nevin believed the correlation went even further than that. He noticed that lead exposure formed a U-shape in society from the 1940s through the 1970s, and that crime rates followed the exact same pattern, with a lag time of 23 years. The patterns fitted so exactly that they could explain 90% of the violent crime variation in the US. Other studies have just bolstered this finding, from a four-fold increase in homicides in US counties with the highest lead pollution, to a 90% difference in aggravated assault. The difference is so striking, that New York City crime rates have dropped an astounding 75% since the early 1990s.

The effects of lead are alarmingly widespread. In fact, a 1996 declaration by the OECD, an international government body in which the US is a member country, sets out the issues plainly and calls for national and co-operative efforts to reduce risks from exposure to lead.

Fortunately, our collective attempts to reduce its usage have made an exquisite impact on many lives.

In the US, environmental remediation companies have worked to decontaminate massive lead-poisoned areas, like the Massachusetts Military Reservation Training Range, where 36,500 tons of lead was treated. In smaller quantities, like the paint potentially in your home, it's safer just to paint over the old lead paint, sealing yourself off from exposure. There are no safe levels of lead for the human body to contain, so it is vital to test your children, yourself, and watch out for lead-heavy materials and areas.

By Angel Rodriguez, special to the OECD Observer

OECD (1996), Declaration on Risk Reduction for Lead, 19 February 1996, reference C(96)42/FINAL

©OECD Observer No 295 Q2 2013

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