The Molecule Behind the Crime

A recent article in Mother Jones, “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead,” by Kevin Drum explores the statistical link between childhood lead exposure and criminal behavior later in life. In major cities across the board, Drum associates a dramatic upward shift in crime rates during the 1970’s with associated with the introduction of leaded gasoline two decades earlier, and the drop in violent crimes nationwide in the mid-nineties with the switch to unleaded gasoline in the 1970’s. No other common explanation of crime: policing techniques, availability of illegal drugs, economic conditions, or otherwise, is as highly correlated as is the presence of lead in gasoline.

Last week, the City of Detroit announced the official crime statistics for 2012: 386 criminal homicides occurred last year, up from 344 in 2011. As examined in a December 28th Free Press article (pdf), the homicide rate followed a trend similar to that of the national crime rate:  rising dramatically in the late 1960’s, peaking in the late 1980’s, and falling to 1970’s levels presently.  Major crime overall, however, is down 2.42 percent from 2011, and is 11.47 percent lower than 2010 levels. The official 2012 crime statistics released last week can be viewed via mlive (pdf); more detailed reports are available through the City of Detroit.

As the maps below show, childhood rates of lead poisoning have shifted dramatically over the past ten years. This is due in great part to preventative efforts at the federal, state, and local levels.

If the relationship between lead poisoning and crime holds, the numbers in Detroit should soon begin to benefit from decades of progress.

Although leaded gasoline and paint are no longer in use today, soil can remain polluted with lead released decades ago, and many older homes contain lead paint. Drum suggests that at the federal level, investing $20 billion per year in removing lead from homes and soil would result in $150 billion in savings annually due to reduced crime. HUD’s total budget for lead hazard reduction in 2012 was roughly $125 million, and the CDC’s budget for lead poisoning prevention and asthma control combined was a paltry $32.6 million. Could we continue to invest in lead abatement now to reduce crime to pre-1960’s levels over the next twenty years?