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Get The Lead Out

by Craig Good

January 13, 2013

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Donate I will start out right off the bat by stating a personal bias: Anything I read in Mother Jones gets extra scrutiny. But what is said ultimately matters more than who is saying it, or where. I wanted to get that out of the way at the start because I think this is potentially one of the biggest public health stories of the last hundred years.

It is well established that the incidence of violent crime has been dropping over the last couple of decades. This means, pretty clearly, that oft-touted causes of crime such as gun ownership rates and playing violent videogames - which have both been rising - don't explain the crime rates. Good arguments can be made for the "broken windows" policy of Mayor Giulianiin New York. Others make the plausible claim that the growing prison population has effected the change by keeping criminals off the streets. Criminologists have tried very hard to find the explanation that fits the data.

But they have been reluctant to look at one suspect who has been stealthy in both his entrance and partial exit from the scene:Pb(CH2CH3)4.

Yes, I mean lead.

Take a few minutes to read the article,America's Real Criminal Element.

Correlation is not causation, but when multiple lines of evidence from many angles all overlap so consistently, the data become quite compelling. None of the theories of the criminologists can explain both the rise and fall in violent crime rates. And note that the lead hypothesis not only explains those curves in America, but in different countries.

The last part of Drumm's article advocates a particular solution. It may or may not be the best one, and I prefer not even to start talking about policy proposals until the science is solid. Political policy isn't really on topic here at Skeptoid in any case.

If you follow the below links, though, I suspect that you will come to opine as I do that this is a serious, credible threat which is deserving of serious study and, most likely, action. If I advocate for anything at this point it is for some real interdisciplinary work, getting criminologists, epidemiologists, and medical researchers talking to each other.

This strikes me as like the stories we all know about things likeboiling lime juice, or X-ray machines in shoe stores, but writ on a much larger scale.

J. R. McNeill's contention that Thomas Midgley, Jr. "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history" may prove tragically true.

Here are the links to some of the data:


Dr. Steven Novella, over at NeuroLogica, just weighed in. His blog post is well worth reading. His conclusion is that, while lead doesn't explain all of the crime data, it is probably significant and well worth cleaning up.
The connection between chronic lead exposure and neurological effects, including those that plausibly contribute to crime, is both plausible and reasonably supported by existing evidence. The magnitude of this effect is difficult to tease apart from the many variables that can potentially affect the crime rate. If we accept the 20% figure (crime that is lead related), which seems plausible, then this indicates a significant role for lead, but lead is certainly not the only important factor.

by Craig Good

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