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

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

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

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • 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.
  • 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 .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

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 2019