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Did limits on lead cause huge U.S. crime drop?

April 2, 2014
Courtesy of the American Chemical Society
and World Science staff

Re­mov­al of lead from gas and paint con­tri­but­ed to a huge de­cline in vi­o­lence across the Un­ited States since the 1990s, ac­cord­ing to a new the­o­ry.

An ar­ti­cle in Chem­i­cal & En­gi­neer­ing News, a mag­a­zine of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal So­ci­e­ty, said ex­perts are start­ing to take the link se­ri­ous­ly.

Lau­ren K. Wolf, as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor at the mag­a­zine, writes in the ar­ti­cle that vi­o­lent crimes had reached an all-time high in the U.S. in the early ‘90s. But by the decade’s end, the hom­i­cide rate had plum­meted over 40 per­cent. Mul­ti­ple the­o­ries were bat­ted around to ex­plain the drop. Was it due to an in­crease in po­lice pres­ence? Did the le­gal­iz­a­tion of abor­tion lead to few­er un­wanted ba­bies who would grow in­to crime-prone adults?

The ar­ti­cle, pub­lished in the mag­a­zine’s Feb. 3 is­sue, notes that lead, the once-ubiquitous heavy met­al, spewed from car ex­haust and coat­ed build­ing walls un­til it was banned from gas­o­line and paint in the early 1970s. Ba­bies born post-ban were ex­posed to far less lead. 

Twen­ty years lat­er, those ba­bies were young adults who com­mit­ted few­er crimes than their pre­de­ces­sors. 

“Chil­dren born in the mid- to late-1970s grew up with less lead in their bod­ies than chil­dren born ear­li­er. As a re­sult, economists ar­gue, kids born in the ‘70s reached adult­hood in the ‘90s with health­i­er brains and less of a pen­chant for vi­o­lence,” the ar­ti­cle says.

Like an in­tri­cate puz­zle, Wolf writes, clues from across dis­ci­plines—epi­dem­iol­ogy, neu­rol­o­gy, so­ci­ol­o­gy, med­i­cine and en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence—are now in­ter­lock­ing and cre­at­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of how lead af­fects the mind, in­clud­ing low­er­ing IQ, and caus­ing at­ten­tion prob­lems and an­ti­so­cial ten­den­cies.


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Removal of lead from gas and paint may have contributed to a huge decline in violence across the United States since the 1990s, according to a new theory. An article in Chemical & Engineering News, a magazine of the American Chemical Society, said experts are starting to take the link seriously. Lauren K. Wolf, associate editor at the magazine, writes in the article that violent crimes had reached an all-time high in the U.S. in the early ‘90s. But by the decade’s end, the homicide rate had plummeted over 40 percent. Multiple theories were batted around to explain the drop. Was it due to an increase in police presence? Did the legalization of abortion lead to fewer unwanted babies who would grow into crime-prone adults? The article, published in the magazine’s Feb. 3 issue, notes that lead, the once-ubiquitous heavy metal, spewed from car exhaust and coated building walls until it was banned from gasoline and paint in the early 1970s. Babies born post-ban were exposed to far less lead. Twenty years later, those babies were young adults who committed fewer crimes than their predecessors. “Children born in the mid- to late-1970s grew up with less lead in their bodies than children born earlier. As a result, economists argue, kids born in the ‘70s reached adulthood in the ‘90s with healthier brains and less of a penchant for violence,” the article said. Like an intricate puzzle, Wolf writes, clues from across disciplines—epidemiology, neurology, sociology, medicine and environmental science—are now interlocking and creating a fascinating portrait of how lead affects the mind, including lowering IQ, and causing attention problems and antisocial tendencies.