Was Lead Pollution The Main Cause Of High Crime And Violence In 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s America?

It wasn’t crack cocaine, poverty, or the breakdown of the nuclear family that caused the spike in violent criminality. Most likely, it was automobile fumes. Mother Jones has a bombshell story:

In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. By 2010, violent crime rates in New York City had plunged 75 percent from their peak in the early ’90s. Washington, DC[‘s] violent crime rate has dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas’ has fallen 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent.

Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early ’40s through the early ’70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted. Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same pattern. The only thing different was the time period: the two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

If you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. In states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime declined slowly. Where it declined quickly, crime declined quickly.

The gasoline lead story is the only hypothesis that persuasively explains both the rise of crime in the ’60s and ’70s and its fall beginning in the ’90s. Two other theories—the baby boom demographic bulge and the drug explosion of the ’60s—at least have the potential to explain both, but neither one fully fits the known data.

Read the rest at Mother Jones

8 Comments on "Was Lead Pollution The Main Cause Of High Crime And Violence In 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s America?"

  1. Hmmm … I wonder if that also explains the rise in the popularity of really loud music among teens. (Not complaining; I was born in ’56.)

  2. Actually, the increase in legal abortions among low income high risk families dropped the statistical pool of persons of suitable age to commit crimes…causing a decades later ripple effect as crime in nearly every category collapsed…what becomes amusing is watching the media scramble throughout the decline of violent crime to massage stats and announce the reduction as an increase…with the predictable effect of encouraging people to vote and cheer for ‘tough on crime’ policies that increased incarceration for ever more minor offenses…in large part because prisoners for serious offenses just weren’t enough to keep the dollars flowing into the prison industrial complex.

  3. Shuck_and_Jive | Jan 8, 2013 at 12:49 pm |

    Twenty year time lag from in utero and early childhood lead exposure until adolescence and early adult when capable of committing violent crimes. Maybe perhaps.

  4. So many curves follow this general time frame, and pattern for America. The more closely we examine the greatest democracy the earth has ever known, the more cracks on its walls we see? The most disturbing curve, the exponential rise in debt o this nation in the last two decades, while wages, productivity, and science advances remained static. Another curve, showing exponential growth of fewer and fewer Uber Rich at the top? Another, the ever increasing Military Budget for the last three decades? All these and many more indicate an America in severe flux. Even the American Diet declared by other countries and their Scientists as deadly? even sewage originated chemicals found in trace amounts in drinking water?
    The Elephant in the room of course: 60% of the American population lives within 50 miles of reactors storing deadly radio active waste. Reactor storage currently at 3 to 4 times the original design limits. Wastes added daily, no solution in sight. stupendous disposal costs, decommissioning costs were not and are not included in billing for the power? “Corporations” know, they can simply dissolve themselves, allow shareholders to walk away with bundles of money, leave the mess behind, without liabilities – actually part of the definition of a Corporation in America. Even the aspartame fiasco goes unheeded by an American peon fully mesmerized by the Great Corporate American Propaganda Whores’ moanings?

  5. Jeffery Allen | Jan 8, 2013 at 9:04 pm |

    Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Freakonomics”. He makes a compelling and convincing case which attributes the rapid drop in violent crime to legalized abortion.

  6. TennesseeCyberian | Jan 8, 2013 at 10:17 pm |

    I’ve heard about the abortion theory, the increased medication theory, the cultural amalgamation theory, and the dramatically increased prison population theory as to why violence spiked in the 90s and seems to have declined ever since. Never thought I’d read this, though.

    Car exhaust? At least we can be thankful that people using it to kill themselves rarely emerge from the garage, because they would surely start shooting immediately.

  7. BuzzCoastin | Jan 9, 2013 at 12:32 am |

    not 100% sure
    but that curve looks like the baby boomers birth curve too
    the last Boomers were born in 65

    the Boomers born in 46 turned 40 in 86
    so a decline in births and the maturity of the Boomers could also be a factor
    which is my point
    any set of statistics merely shows one flap of the butterfly’s wings

  8. I have another hypothesis. Lead paint in Urban delapidated homes. It mostly affects poor people in the inner city. Homes that were built before 1978 used lead paint until it was discontinued. Lead paint begat lead poisoning of the urban youth, [circa 1980’s and beyond]. Lead poison leads to learning disabilities which leads to crime.
    So, should crime be going up? At least in urban America?

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