Lead is bad stuff.  I've worked on campaigns to eradicate the residue of lead paint in housing.  It causes brain damage in babies and children, just the near-microscopic paint dust from windows.  Bad stuff.  

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones has a fascinating blog post in which he links to an article suggesting that the environmental efforts of the 1970s to remove lead from gas contributed to lower crime rates today.  

First, Kevin Drum:

I've written several posts recently about the idea that America's great crime epidemic, which started in the 60s and peaked in the early 90s, was caused in large part by lead emissions from automobiles. Long story short, we all bought lots of cars after World War II and filled them up with leaded gasoline. This lead was spewed out of tailpipes and ingested by small children, and when those children grew up they were more prone to committing violent crimes than normal children. Then, starting in the mid-70s, we all began switching to unleaded gasoline. Our kids were no longer made artificially violent by lead poisoning, and when they grew up in the mid-90s they committed fewer violent crimes. This trend continued for two decades, and it's one of the reasons that violent crime rates have dropped by half over the past 20 years and by more than that in our biggest cities. It's one of the great underreported stories of our time: big cities today are as safe as they were 50 years ago.
Mother Jones: Crime Is at its Lowest Level in 50 Years. A Simple Molecule May Be the Reason Why

That's the short story version.  He links to the longer story in Mother Jones that prvides data and science supporting the thesis (and briefly describes key support from studies and science points in his blog post).

The article describes a correlation based on econometric studies.  See Page 1 of Mother Jones: America's Real Criminal Element: Lead.  New research finds Pb is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing..

Page 2 of the article discusses the science:

Neurological research is demonstrating that lead's effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought. For starters, it turns out that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter, and levels once believed safe—65 μg/dL, then 25, then 15, then 10—are now known to cause serious damage. The EPA now says flatly that there is "no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood," and it turns out that even levels under 10 μg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 μg/dL.


A team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati has been following a group of 300 children for more than 30 years and recently performed a series of MRI scans that highlighted the neurological differences between subjects who had high and low exposure to lead during early childhood.

High childhood exposure damages a part of the brain linked to aggression control and "executive functions." And the impact turns out to be greater among boys.One set of scans found that lead exposure is linked to production of the brain's white matter—primarily a substance called myelin, which forms an insulating sheath around the connections between neurons. Lead exposure degrades both the formation and structure of myelin, and when this happens, says Kim Dietrich, one of the leaders of the imaging studies, "neurons are not communicating effectively." Put simply, the network connections within the brain become both slower and less coordinated.

A second study found that high exposure to lead during childhood was linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as what psychologists call "executive functions": emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. One way to understand this, says Kim Cecil, another member of the Cincinnati team, is that lead affects precisely the areas of the brain "that make us most human."

So lead is a double whammy: It impairs specific parts of the brain responsible for executive functions and it impairs the communication channels between these parts of the brain. For children like the ones in the Cincinnati study, who were mostly inner-city kids with plenty of strikes against them already, lead exposure was, in Cecil's words, an "additional kick in the gut." And one more thing: Although both sexes are affected by lead, the neurological impact turns out to be greater among boys than girls.


In other words, as Reyes summarized the evidence in her paper, even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ. And right there, you've practically defined the profile of a violent young offender.

Page 2 of Mother Jones: America's Real Criminal Element: Lead.  New research finds Pb is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing.

Guess who was involved in the original struggle to remove lead from gasoline?  A young Joe Biden.  And who opposed it? George Bush I and other Republicans.  Some things do not change.  (Whoops.  Looks like Biden was wrong on that, but he at least called for a literature review. I misread it the first time.)

1974 — May 7 – 8 — Hearings before the Panel on Environmental Science and Technology of the Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution of the Committee on Public Works. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del) calls for “a panel of medical scientists having expertise in the field” to perform a literature review, but concludes: “In my opinion, lead from auto emissions does not constitute a public health hazard.”


1975 — New car models made with catalytic converters which require unleaded gasoline. Ethyl Corp. unsuccessfully proposes “lead tolerant” catalytic converters.

1976 – March 19 — Preliminary decision in Lead Industries Association v EPA; court says EPA has authority to regulate leaded gasoline. Even if there is no certainty that lead in gasoline is a danger, “awaiting certainty will often allow only for reactive not preventive regulation,” says judge J. Skelly Wright. The lead phaseout begins, and by June 1979, nearly half of all US gasoline is unleaded.


1977 – Testing by public health scientists shows correlations between high levels of lead in children’s blood and brain damage, hypertention and learning disorders.


1980 — June 27 — Final decision in Lead Industries Association v. EPA, affirms EPA regulations for leaded gasoline, allowing the phase-out to go forward. Judge J. Skelly Wright says:

The national ambient air quality standards for lead were the culmination of a process of rigorous scientific and public review which permitted a thorough ventilation of the complex scientific and technical issues presented by this rulemaking proceeding… To be sure, even the experts did not always agree about the answers to the questions that were raised. Indeed, they did not always agree on what the relevant questions were. These disagreements underscore the novelty and complexity of the issues that had to be resolved,

            — National Academy of Sciences says that leaded gasoline is the greatest source of atmospheric lead pollution, and estimated daily intake of 0.3mg per person.


1981 — Vice President George Bush’s Task Force on Regulatory Relief proposes to relax or eliminate US leaded gas phaseout, despite mounting evidence of serious health problems.

1982 — Reagan Administration reverses opposition to lead phaseout.

Environmental history timeline: Special timeline: Leaded gasoline

Read the article at Mother Jones.  It's fascinating and makes a good argument for why environmental regulations can make a real difference.  

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