LEAD ABATEMENT….YES, IT’S BORING, BUT READ THIS POST ANYWAY….In the past, I’ve suggested that an aggressive lead abatement program could be “one of the most cost effective social programs in the history of the country.” This is based mostly on the possibility that lead abatement could raise IQs in 6 million children by about 7 points for a cost of only $30 billion or so. If these numbers are even close to correct, a crash program to radically reduce blood levels of lead in children would be one of history’s all-time no brainers.
But there’s more: lead exposure in children is also linked to criminal behavior later in life. Today, the Washington Post reports on research performed by economist Rick Nevin that suggests even more: namely that overall crime rates are driven more strongly by lead exposure than by any other single factor:
Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.
Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.
….Lead levels plummeted in New York in the early 1970s, driven by federal policies to eliminate lead from gasoline and local policies to reduce lead emissions from municipal incinerators….The [subsequent] drop in violent crime was dramatic. In 1990, 31 New Yorkers out of every 100,000 were murdered. In 2004, the rate was 7 per 100,000 — lower than in most big cities. The lead theory also may explain why crime fell broadly across the United States in the 1990s, not just in New York.
….The centerpiece of Nevin’s research is an analysis of crime rates and lead poisoning levels across a century. The United States has had two spikes of lead poisoning: one at the turn of the 20th century, linked to lead in household paint, and one after World War II, when the use of leaded gasoline increased sharply. Both times, the violent crime rate went up and down in concert, with the violent crime peaks coming two decades after the lead poisoning peaks.
The association between even minuscule amounts of lead exposure and bad outcomes later in life has become stronger and stronger over the past couple of decades. If Nevin and other lead researchers are even half right — and even if the cost of extreme lead abatement is double or triple what we think it might be — it beggars belief that we aren’t willing to do it. It’s time for Democrats to get hopping on this.