Lead and crime

©Dmitry Kalinovsky

You’ve probably heard that silly 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 correlates to spikes in crime more than any other single factor. Granted, though 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, former 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 million 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 fourfold 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 on risk reduction for lead by the OECD sets out the issues plainly, calling 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, such as the Massachusetts Military Reservation Training Range, where 36,500 tons of lead was treated. In smaller quantities, such as 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 and yourself, and watch out for lead-heavy materials and areas. 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

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • How do the largest community of British expats living in Spain feel about Brexit? Britons living in Orihuela Costa, Alicante give their views.
  • Brexit is taking up Europe's energy and focus, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. Watch video.
  • OECD Chief Economist Catherine Mann and former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King discuss the economic merits of a US border adjustment tax and the outlook for US economic growth.
  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2017