A persistent scientific theory that suggests that crime rates are directly associated with exposure to lead is gaining some new attention. The Washington Post recently published an article explaining the theory, citing work by economist Rick Nevin that “has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.” Nevin is quoted as explaining that children throughout most of the 20th century have been exposed to rather high levels of lead, and that poisoning from the metal manifests itself in adolescence as delinquent behavior and often develops into criminal behavior later in life. He insists that exposure to lead is the largest factor in the determination of international crime trends, although he recognizes that other factors contribute to criminal behavior as well.
The theory that lead poisoning in the early years can cause criminal behavior years later has been around for some time. In 2000, the University of Pittsburgh Medical center published research that stated that “children exposed to lead have significantly greater odds of developing delinquent behavior.” The study showed that delinquent youths had much higher levels of lead in their bodies than their non-troublemaking counterparts, and that the results showed no difference between races and genders.
“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research, was quoted as saying in the Washington Post article. And it does seem that there is an identifiable relationship between occurrences of lead poisoning throughout U.S. history and peaks in our country’s crime rate.
I think this research deserves more attention from scientists and policymakers alike. To reduce lead poisoning, and, according to this research, quite possibly reduce crime in the United States, we should dismantle old construction projects that used lead-based paint. But since the serious health risks surrounding the use of lead are already so widely recognized, we should be doing this anyway. I hope that the new attention to this research, along with the notion that crime could be reduced if we reduce cases of lead poisoning, will make the issue of preventing lead exposure more of a priority in our society.