Get The Lead Out: Crime Reduction In America

I saw this via Kevin Drum about a week ago and meant to put a post up because it is both stunning and fascinating. Mark Kleiman has a book out on criminal justice and punishment by the name of When Brute Force Fails. The reviews have been fantastic, but it is the discussion of the effects of reduction in lead exposure on the crime rate that caught my eye:

Given the decrease in lead exposure among children since the 1980s and the estimated effects of lead on crime, reduced lead exposure could easily explain a very large proportion — certainly more than half — of the crime decrease of the 1994-2004 period. A careful statistical study relating local changes in lead exposure to local crime rates estimates the fraction of the crime decline due to lead reduction as greater than 90%.

Jeebus; that is pretty eye opening. Granted, there are a lot of nits that could be picked as to whether this is a direct or correlative relationship and, even if it is direct, to what extent it is so; however, it is a hell of a discussion point.

A 2007 Washington Post article described one of the studies behind Kleiman’s assertion:

The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children’s exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives.

What makes Nevin’s work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor.

As an added bonus, the Post article uses Nevin’s study to mock Rudy Giuliani’s constant claim that he is the man who singlehandedly drastically cut the crime rate in New York City:

Rudy Giuliani never misses an opportunity to remind people about his track record in fighting crime as mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001.

“I began with the city that was the crime capital of America,” Giuliani, now a candidate for president, recently told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “When I left, it was the safest large city in America. I reduced homicides by 67 percent. I reduced overall crime by 57 percent.”

Although crime did fall dramatically in New York during Giuliani’s tenure, a broad range of scientific research has emerged in recent years to show that the mayor deserves only a fraction of the credit that he claims. The most compelling information has come from an economist in Fairfax who has argued in a series of little-noticed papers that the “New York miracle” was caused by local and federal efforts decades earlier to reduce lead poisoning.

Lead levels plummeted in New York in the early 1970s, driven by federal policies to eliminate lead from gasoline and local policies to reduce lead emissions from municipal incinerators. Between 1970 and 1974, the number of New York children heavily poisoned by lead fell by more than 80 percent, according to data from the New York City Department of Health.

Lead levels in New York have continued to fall. One analysis in the late 1990s found that children in New York had lower lead exposure than children in many other big U.S. cities, possibly because of a 1960 policy to replace old windows. That policy, meant to reduce deaths from falls, had an unforeseen benefit — old windows are a source of lead poisoning, said Dave Jacobs of the National Center for Healthy Housing, an advocacy group that is publicizing Nevin’s work. Nevin’s research was not funded by the group.

The later drop in violent crime was dramatic. In 1990, 31 New Yorkers out of every 100,000 were murdered. In 2004, the rate was 7 per 100,000 — lower than in most big cities. The lead theory also may explain why crime fell broadly across the United States in the 1990s, not just in New York.

The centerpiece of Nevin’s research is an analysis of crime rates and lead poisoning levels across a century. The United States has had two spikes of lead poisoning: one at the turn of the 20th century, linked to lead in household paint, and one after World War II, when the use of leaded gasoline increased sharply. Both times, the violent crime rate went up and down in concert, with the violent crime peaks coming two decades after the lead poisoning peaks.

Other evidence has accumulated in recent years that lead is a neurotoxin that causes impulsivity and aggression, but these studies have also drawn little attention. In 2001, sociologist Paul B. Stretesky and criminologist Michael Lynch showed that U.S. counties with high lead levels had four times the murder rate of counties with low lead levels, after controlling for multiple environmental and socioeconomic factors.

The entire Post article is well worth a read. It makes clear that Nevin is not a voice in the scientific wilderness in his conclusions, there is a lot of support although there has been little publicity. The lack of publicity, and lack of consideration by Congress should change. Amelioration of lead contamination and exposure is a lot cheaper to society than the deep costs of the root crime, police investigation, justice system expenses and, of course, the burgeoning American prison empire.

I really do not have any intrinsic value to add to the material cited herein, but wanted to get it out and in the discussion matrix. There are obviously health benefits that would accrue from increased attention to removal of environmental lead as well. This is a subject screaming for consideration by policy makers in Washington DC.

PostScript – For any of you that don’t know Mark Kleiman, in addition to being the author of the book this post started off with, he is also a professor at UCLA in the School of Public Affairs and runs a very nice and informative blog.

24 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    This does not bode well for civil society in China. The Chinese have improved their environmental practices of late, but essentially had none until the past ten years.

    We and the rest of the world have shipped our lead-tainted consumer and industrial wastes there for decades. It is home to some of the largest sites for recycling electronic waste, located helter skelter near schools and villages.

    Each old style CRT – televisions and computer monitors – contains more than ten pounds of lead (used to screen electromagnetic radiation). Lead is also in circuit boards, manufacturing and hospital wastes, paint and paint production, etc. The mixture of lead-tainted waste and a dense population will be heartbreaking and troublesome for a generation.

  2. Ishmael says:

    Fascinating study! While I don’t have the statistics to back it up, I had a theory that a lot of the people I represented as a legal aid duty counsel back in the day suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, and the neurological damage and poor impulse control led to confrontations with the criminal justice system – especially among aboriginals. Health care reform could result in a much bigger reduction in crime than all the Giuliani “window-breaking” and other profiling tactics.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      And also BobS @17; heartbreaking comments, containing much truth. And neurological impacts of methamphetamine are even more horrific.

      One overlooked problem with the Roman ruling class is that the marriages were dynastic, so inbreeding produced some very troubling characters (see: Caligula, Nero). The combo of neurotoxins plus an inbred gene pool produced some genuinely disastrous offspring.

      However, many of the worst toxins seem to have been related to mining (especially in Spain, which was the center of silver mining for the Romans). The leaching mining residues appear to have damaged Roman-era groundwater supplies.

      One of my hopes for health care reform is to put more energy toward wellness and better monitoring of toxins; I’ve never heard of Blue Cross or Wellpoint lobbying Congress for lead reduction, nor for lowering noise levels near freeways. Nor have the ‘health insurance companies’ ever seemed to ask a single question about what has been leaking into America’s water supplies.

      The corporate health care model is driven by profit delivery to Wall Street and shareholders. That economic model will never, ever address underlying issues of pollutants and their impacts on long term public health. And on the justice system.

  3. radiofreewill says:

    At one time – about 30 years ago during the ‘get the lead out of the paint’ movement – it was posited that the Fall of the Roman Empire was due, in large part, to lead used in women’s make-up.

    Lead was said to have reduced birth-rates among the well-to-do, and, as a consequence, to have opened the door to civic participation by the violent rabble.

    The theory, at the time, was labeled as ‘hogwash’ by the Conservatives.

    Perhaps there really was something to it after all…

      • Phoenix Woman says:

        And their plumbing.


        There was an article in the old Omni magazine (one of Bob Guiccione’s non-porn ventures) back in the late ’70s/early ’80s that mentioned that when some cooking experts were translating old Roman recipes, they thought they were screwing up the translations because the amount of garlic specified was literally thirty to forty times what would be typically used in a similar recipe today. Guess what? It turns out that garlic — which for thousands of years has had a reputation for strength inducement — helps reduce lead levels in the body. But even garlic can only do so much when your water comes through lead pipes that shed lead in the hot summer and your cheap wine is typically sweetened with lead additives.

        What’s interesting is that the decrease in criminal behavior is happening even as the economic situation in poor urban neighborhoods — another main vector — has worsened over the decades. This pretty starkly points to lead reduction’s power.

      • greenharper says:

        Is there any way to chelate lead from the human body and, if there is, does this help to ameliorate the neurotoxicity?

    • bobschacht says:

      At one time – about 30 years ago during the ‘get the lead out of the paint’ movement – it was posited that the Fall of the Roman Empire was due, in large part, to lead used in women’s make-up.

      Lead was said to have reduced birth-rates among the well-to-do, and, as a consequence, to have opened the door to civic participation by the violent rabble.

      Yes, and don’t forget that “Grecian Formula” hair treatment goes back to the same times, IIRC. The active ingredient in this product is lead-based. I don’t know if Grecian Formula has been proven “Safe and effective” by appropriate testing by a Federal agency, but I stopped using it when I learned that it was lead-based.

      Bob in AZ
      PS I blame any errors in this comment on Grecian Formula

  4. Minnesotachuck says:

    IIRC it was the authors of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, who first publicized that there is a strong correlation between the date of the Roe v Wade decision and the decline in the crime rate that began 13-15 years later. It is ironic, however, that this information comes out practically on the very day (today) that their most recent book, SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance hits the streets to a chorus of boos and catcalls.

  5. DWBartoo says:

    What an eye opener, bmaz, thank you.

    What a truly monumental theory, with profound implications … for a number of things.

    For example, without the endless war on drugs, “they” would have had to invent other forms of “crime” to fill the prisons and support the privatization of the incarceration “game”.

    Wonder if it will be a mind opener?

    Prolly not.

    Doesn’t fit the “humans as grasping, nasty brutes, all clawing their viciious way to the top of the writhing heap” theme of the right …


  6. WilliamOckham says:

    I believe the best evidence points to the following three factors driving crime rates (accounting for statistically indistinguishable from 100% of the variation):

    1. Lead
    2. Social cohesion (effectively the existence of a legitimate government)
    3. Demographics (the percentage of males of prime ‘crime-bearing’ age)

    The problem with the crime-abortion theory is that it’s hard to separate it from the demographic impact and it coincided in time with the leaded gasoline reduction.

    • Minnesotachuck says:

      I don’t have the book (Freakonomics) available to me at the moment, since I read a library copy. But if I my hazy memory is right the study they sourced from had drilled down to look at when abortion subsequently became legally available in various jurisdictions, an interval that varied considerably, and then at the crime rates in those jurisdictions. The study found a strong correlation that the knee in the curve of declining crime rates consistently lagged behind the legalization of abortion by the time that the unwanted children would otherwise have been entering their teen years. This would strongly suggest a causal relationship. Note to self: Check out that book again.

      PS: What’s with the comment editor? It keeps inserting three back slashes in front of an apostrophe, at least on the preview. Well, at least the back slashes don’t show up once the comment is finally submitted.

      • WilliamOckham says:

        PS: What’s with the comment editor? It keeps inserting three back slashes in front of an apostrophe, at least on the preview. Well, at least the back slashes don’t show up once the comment is finally submitted.

        I reported that today and they are aware of the issue and working it.

      • Sparkatus says:

        I was thinking of Freakonomics while reading this piece. I’d like to see how each of these studies controlled for correlation in timing of reduction in lead levels and availability of birth control // abortion rights.

        I’m pretty aware of lead as an issue, as my child was identified with elevated lead levels here in NYC, happily well before the level was “high”. For that reason, I’m really intrigued as well by the garlic study referred by Phoenix Woman; I’d never heard of that and looked pretty heavily into various ways of “getting the lead out”. I’ll do more research on that and try to share what I find.

  7. Loo Hoo. says:

    THe EPA has a fascinating page on lead.

    The first century A.D. was a time of unbridled gluttony and drunkenness among the ruling oligarchs of Rome. The lead concealed in the food and wine they devoured undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the outbreak of unprecedented epidemics of saturnine gout and sterility among aristocratic males and the alarming rate of infertility and stillbirths among aristocratic women.

    Still more alarming was the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite. This creeping cretinism manifested itself most frighteningly in such clearly degenerate emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus. It is said that Nero wore a breastplate of lead, ostensibly to strengthen his voice, as he fiddled and sang while Rome burned. Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, actually had a fountain installed in his palace from which he could drink a never-ending stream of leaded wine.

  8. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for this report. Lead is a well-known neurotoxin. But what is not so well known is, so is alcohol. Women who drink while pregnant risk damaging the brain of their developing fetus, and research has abundantly documented the kinds of mental impairments that can result, including impaired executive functioning, impaired ability to foresee consequences, and impairment of social skills development. People who were affected by maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and it is also well established that people who do not show the facial characteristics, but whose mothers drank during pregnancy, have been diagnosed with “Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder.”

    Studies have also shown that people who have been affected in this way are a disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population.

    I was involved in research on these issues for about 10 years.

    References supplied on request.

    Bob in AZ

    • BayStateLibrul says:


      Is there a threshhold for drinking…
      Does it have to be a certain level, or is ALL drinking bad?

      • bobschacht says:

        Sorry for not noticing your question until now.
        The alcohol we drink is a very small molecule, and can pass through most barriers. Many other toxic agents are large molecules that cannot easily pass through the body’s membranes.
        Alcohol can kill cells, and when it doesn’t kill them, it can disrupt normal cell growth and other cellular functions. So whether a mother’s drinking can cause fetal damage or not depends on how much she drinks, as well as her overall health and nutritional status, and other stressors. It also depends on how the mother metabolizes alcohol (there are genetic variations). IOW, I can’t give you a simple answer. Some mothers seem to “get away” with drinking, and their baby may seem normal. But how many IQ points are shaved off in the process? How much adaptive behavior skill is sacrificed? The effects of exposing a fetus to alcohol vary widely in unpredictable ways, depending on a number of factors, some of which I have tried to list.

        Bob in AZ

  9. gmoke says:

    Thomas Midgeley is the chemist who put tetraethyl lead in gasoline. He was also the inventor of Freon, the CFC refrigerant that thinned the stratospheric ozone layer. I nominate him as the first geoengineer and one of the most destructive people who ever lived.

  10. Sparkatus says:

    This is long, but who knows if anyone is reading this thread anymore…

    I found a good number of animal studies (some abstracts below) which show statistically significant reduction of lead levels achieved through adding garlic extract to food supply.


    Effect of garlic (Allium sativum L.) extract on tissue lead level in rats

    Laboratory of Comparative System of Medicine, Division of Medicine, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar, 243 122 U.P. India

    Received 25 September 2000; revised 20 March 2001; accepted 3 April 2001. Available online 5 July 2001.

    The prophylactic efficacy of garlic (Allium sativum L.) extract to reduce tissue lead (Pb) concentration was evaluated experimentally in rats. Thirty female rats were divided into five groups, keeping group A as a healthy control. Rats of groups B, C, D and E received lead acetate orally at the rate of 5 mg per kg body weight daily for 6 weeks. The garlic extract was tried in three doses, viz. 100 (low), 200 (medium) and 400 mg (high) per kg body weight orally and given simultaneously with lead salt to the rats of group C, D and E, respectively. Mean blood lead concentrations in lead-exposed rats ranged between 0.13±0.02 and 0.96±0.06 μg/ml, whereas in garlic-treated rats, the range was between 0.16±0.01 and 0.80±0.05; 0.13±0.01 and 0.71±0.06 and 0.14±0.01 and 0.60±0.05 μg per ml in low, medium and high dose groups, respectively. The mean lead concentration in liver, kidneys, brain and bone of lead exposed rats was 2.943±0.206, 4.780±0.609, 1.019±0.100 and 44.075±2.60 μg per ml, respectively. Concomitant use of garlic extract at the three different doses was found to reduce lead concentration considerably indicating the potential therapeutic activity of garlic against lead.

    Effect of garlic on lead contents in chicken tissues.
    Hanafy MS, Shalaby SM, el-Fouly MA, Abd el-Aziz MI, Soliman FA.
    Dept. Vet. Pharmacology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Cairo University, Giza, Egypt.

    Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr. 1994 Apr;101(4):157-8.

    Lead has been indicted to be involved in the aetiology of human and animal diseases. In view of earlier literature indicating that garlic antagonized lead toxicity, we have investigated the possible use of garlic feeding to clean up lead contents from chickens which had been exposed to natural or experimental lead pollution and consequently eliminate one of the sources of lead pollution to human consumers. Groups of chickens (10 birds each) were given lead alone (lead acetate equivalent to 5 mg lead/kg B.W.) or both lead and garlic simultaneously or lead followed by garlic post-treatment or garlic alone or distilled water. Lead concentrations were reduced in muscle and liver tissues of chickens given both lead and garlic simultaneously or as a post-treatment. Reduction in tissue-lead concentrations were greater in birds given garlic as a post-treatment than those given garlic simultaneously with lead. The results indicate that garlic contain chelating compounds capable of enhancing elimination of lead. Garlic feeding can be exploited to safeguard human consumers by minimizing lead concentrations in meat of food animals which had been grown in a lead polluted environment.

    MSH Khan, M Mostofa, MS Jahan, MA Sayed, MA Hossain


    The experiment was performed on 25 adult mice, (Swiss albino), weighing about 25 gm, maintained on standard pellet diet and drinking water ad libitum. All the mice were randomly divided into five equal groups (5×5). Each group comprised of five mice was marked as group A, B, C, D and E. In the present study an attempt has been taken to study the effect of Garlic and vitamin B-complex in lead induced toxicities in mice with the observation of some parameters as toxic signs and body weight, some haematological parameters like total erythrocyte count (TEC), total leukocyte count (TLC), haemoglobin content (Hb%) and Packed cell volume (PCV), some biochemical parameters such as serum glutamate pyruvate transaminase SGPT/ALT, Serum glutamate Oxaloacetate transaminase (SGOT/AST) and postmortem changes in mice. An attempt was also made to estimate the residual deposition of lead in body tissues i.e. blood, liver, kidney, brain and bone in mice. Mice treated with lead acetate showed severe toxic signs and significantly reduced total erythrocyte count, total leukocyte count, haemoglobin content and packed cell volume and significant elevation of SGPT and SGOT. But in case of mice treated by lead acetate along with Garlic and vitamin B-complex showed almost normal levels of haematological and biochemical parameters. From this experiment it is revealed that Garlic and vitamin B-complex has protective and curative effect in lead toxicity. The mean body weight of mice of group B (only lead acetate) was significantly (p Garlic > Vitamin Bcomplex.
    Key words: Garlic, vitamin B-complex, lead acetate, mice Â
    doi: 10.3329/bjvm.v6i2.2337
    Bangl. J. Vet. Med. (2008). 6 (2): 203-210

    Interestingly, CDC says nothing about garlic, but does recommend iron, calcium and vitamin C supplements with seemingly poor scientific backup for efficacy.

    Managing Elevated Blood Lead Levels Among Young Children: Recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention
    Chapter 4 – Nutritional Assessment and Interventions

    Nutritional measures have not yet been proven to have a clinically important impact on elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) in children. However, children with EBLLs are often at risk for poor nutrition, and their caregivers should receive nutritional counseling to help these children obtain a well-balanced and age-appropriate diet.

    Test children at risk for anemia (e.g., those from low income, migrant, or recently arrived refugee families, or those qualifying for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children [WIC]).
    Between ages 9 and 12 months
    6 months later
    Annually from ages 2 to 5 years
    Evaluate the diet of children at risk for anemia, paying particular attention to dietary iron, vitamin C, and calcium.

    Evaluate the WIC eligibility of children with EBLLs and ensure their access to this program if eligible.
    Advise caregivers to provide children with an adequate intake of iron-containing foods. Recommend that they:
    Introduce pureed meats as soon as the child is developmentally
    Provide one serving of lean red meat per day to older children.
    Provide supplements only under the supervision of a physician or nutritionist and only when anemia or iron deficiency is documented.
    Encourage caregivers to provide children with adequate intake of vitamin C-containing foods. Recommend that they:
    Provide two servings of fruit juices or fruits per day.
    Provide supplements only under the supervision of a physician or nutritionist.
    Encourage caregivers to provide children with adequate intake of calcium (500 mg/day @ 1-3 years; 800 mg/day @ 4-8 years). Recommend that they:
    Provide two servings per day of dairy products or other calcium-rich foods.
    Provide supplements only under the supervision of a physician or nutritionist.
    Always keep recommended interventions within the ability of the caregiver to implement them.

Comments are closed.