If you live in NYC or any other major U.S. city and rent or own an apartment it’s likely you’re familiar with the city’s programs to make people aware of the dangers of lead paint sometimes found in old buildings. What you probably didn’t know is that in 1994 when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development was doing research on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses their findings lead them to a an interesting theory.
A growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a wealth of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. One recent study had suggested a link between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency later on. Could reducing lead exposure have had an effect on violent crime too? Since 1994 there have been plenty of studies that show that the answer to that question just might be “yes”.
Studies show that if you offset the introduction of leaded gasoline into the population and the crime rate by 23 years it lines up nearly perfectly. It makes sense that the poison wouldn’t have an immediate effect so the fact that it took 23 years to initially make an impact on the crime statistics and another 23 years after it was banned for crime to start dropping makes sense.
If you want to understand the causes of crime you need to start with lead, says Dr Bernard Gesch, a physiologist at Oxford University who has studied the effect of diet and other environmental factors on criminals.
In 2007 Prof Jessica Wolpaw-Reyes, an economist at Amherst College Massachusetts, was doing what many expectant mothers do all across the world. Learning as much as she could about environmental dangers to her unborn child. When Wolpaw-Reyes started reading up on lead in the environment she too began wondering about whether or not there was actually a correlation between lead and violent crime.
“There is a substantial causal relationship,” she says. “I can see it in the state-to-state variations. States that experienced particularly early or particularly sharp declines in lead experienced particularly early or particularly sharp declines in violent crime 20 years later.”
So, according to her research not only was there a correlation the correlation was so specific that states that had stricter leaded gasoline legislation sooner also showed a drop in crime rate sooner than states that were slower to act.
“Lead changes who we are,” she says. “If you wanted to say, Jessica, I don’t believe that story, then my answer is that you need to come up with another story that would explain why we have found this particular pattern to lead in the 1970s and 80s and then crime in the 1990s and 2000s.
“Moreover you need to be able to show why this relationship is now coming up in other work on bullying, child behaviour problems, teenage delinquency, suicide and substance abuse. You need to tell a story about why those would be linked by chance.”
And it’s not just in the United States, the correlation has been shown to around the world.
Since then, the data for the lead theorists has become more and more detailed. Nevin and his supporters predicted that crime would fall in other nations 20 years after the banning of leaded petrol – and their theory appears to have played out in Europe.
Leaded petrol was removed from British engines later than in North America – and the crime rate in the UK began to fall later than in the US and Canada.
Lead theorists say that data they’ve collated and calculated from each nation shows the same 20-year trend – the sooner lead is removed from the environment, the sooner crime will begin to fall.
Dr Bernard Gesch says the data now suggests that lead could account for as much as 90% of the changing crime rate during the 20th Century across all of the world.
“A lot of people would say that correlation isn’t cause,” he says. “But it seems that the more the exposure, the more extreme the behaviour. I’m certainly not saying that lead is the only explanation why crime is falling – but it is certainly the most persuasive. Unless someone is telling us that the brain is not involved in decision-making then lead has to be relevant to crime.”
Sadly Americans haven’t been able to take advantage of this fact or enjoy the the exhilarating feeling that we are living in the safest time in history to live. Why? Because corporations still need to keep us afraid so we don’t question why more Americans are in prison than in any other country in the world. Most of them are private, for-profit prisons.
A national survey has found that Louisiana guarantees private prisons operating in the state that they will have at least 96 percent occupancy, and if they don’t house that many inmates, the state pays them that much, anyway.
Why is this important? Because privatized prisons thought they had a foolproof way of making money, I mean until the 90s crime had been steadily rising year after year. Suddenly, the trend completely reversed itself and at some point in the 90s the crime rate began to fall year after year. All of these companies that had made deals with the state politicians to get rid of state run facilities and start using private prisons began hemorrhaging money.
So while violent crime was plummeting, private prisons were filled to capacity, often times over-capacity. The companies that own the 24-hour media companies (CNN, MSNBC, FOX News) realized that they could just increase their coverage of crime on their shows by a few hundred percent and Americans wouldn’t even know that violent gun crime was down.
Once the media companies fell in line they began to lobby the politicians to help them keep their prisons turning a profit. You know, “get tough on crime”. Tighten regulations, create idiotic three strike rules, and start locking away the mentally-ill and non-violent criminals. It was so effective that the United States actually has more than 3,000 non-violent offenders locked away in prison serving life without parole.
The huge spike in crime in the 20th century, likely caused by leaded gasoline, created a society of frightened people who didn’t care what measures were used to keep them safe. “Lock them up and throw away the key”. How often have you heard that phrase. The problem is that during the last 25 years the statistics on crime has changed so dramatically that we need to be able to step back and reevaluate who we are locking away and why we are still throwing out the key.
Most people aren’t aware that nearly half of the prison population are non-violent offenders, most of them, drug offenders. Most people aren’t aware that if a prison isn’t filled to its contractual capacity that they are paid by taxpayer money anyway. Let’s start making people more aware. Let’s start to make a change.