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January 04, 2013

Did Leaded Gasoline Fuel the 60s-80s Crimewave?

Interesting article, which I can't evaluate at all because I don't have the data. I just have this guy's word for it (and he relies on other people's word).

Still, interesting.

[I]if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: 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 upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that 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.

...

If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that's exactly what she found.

The theory could also explain why big cities had higher per-capita criminality rates than smaller cities -- more cars churning out more leaded fumes in a denser environment. If there's a connection, then the theory also explains why big-city crime rates have declined to be about equal with smaller-city/large-town crime rates (per capita, again)-- without the increased ppm count of tetraethyl lead in the air, there is no built-in bias for higher crime rates in big cities.

A couple of days back Purple Avenger noted another epidemic-like cause for suboptimal brain functioning: infectious diseases and parasites might substantially knock down IQs in less-developed parts of the world.

Mother Jones is inclined to believe any Environmental Horror story because, well, Mother Jones. But while there are a lot of Boys Crying Wolf of the luddite left, there actually are some genuine wolves, too. Rickets became infamously common in children in Industrial Age Britain, and ultimately the cause turned out to be environmental -- shadows from buildings, soot from factories, and too much time indoors was blocking the body's natural production of Vitamin D from ultraviolet sunlight. (Which is why they started fortifying milk with the vitamin.)

I've harbored a bias towards pathogenic-type explanations for these sorts of things for a while now-- seizing on the theory that schizophrenia is caused by a virus.

The brain, being the most complicated organ, would I think naturally be the one most susceptible to bugs and glitches caused by small things. Simple things tend to be hardy; complicated things tend to be finicky and balky and prone to odd malfunctions.



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posted by Ace at 03:58 PM

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