Does Lead Explain Violent Crime Trends?

Does Lead Explain Violent Crime Trends?

Violent Crime and Lead - Blog Photo 2 - 1.4.15In the early ’90s, America’s violent crime rate reached historic levels– and then, almost miraculously, began a steady decline. As of 2012, violent crime had fallen 48.2 percent since 1993.

Competing Theories

Many theories attempt to explain this decline by linking it to a wide range of variables: more prisoners, better policing, strengthening of the economy, the decline of crack cocaine, to name a few. What these theories have in common, however, is their failure to statistically prove any one variable caused the drastic fall of violent crime.

Until more recently, the best (or maybe most successful or popularized) theory, argued by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics, is that  crime began to fall about 18 years after Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion. The argument: fewer unwanted babies to grow up to be troubled and violent young men.

Lead and Violent Crime?

Kevin Drum‘s essay “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead” offers a strong, competing theory. He links violent crime to childhood exposure to lead. Small children exposed to lead can suffer reduced IQs and reduced emotional development. The best source of lead following WWII was lead from automobile exhaust due to leaded gasoline. The early 90s decline in crime coincides with decline of leaded gasoline and replacement with unleaded gasoline, culminating in the ban of lead in gasoline in 1982.

Drum’s article further argues that lead abatement could continue to reduce the crime rate and improve the lives of individuals in areas that put them at high-risk for lead exposure.

Criticism with both the lead theory and the abortion-legalization theory is that, when looking at the data, we should see decreased crime-involvement with each set of individuals born in subsequent years– which, apparently, we do not. However, each of these theories offers a compelling angle to historical crime trends and future crime prevention.

Full story at Mother Jones.

Photo Credit: Tex Texin


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