The Fight Over Lead Exposure and Environmental Pollution

Evidence shows there might be a correlation between leaded gasoline and violent crime. Why, with the accumulation of so much evidence, have criminologists and policymakers not taken the lead explanation/problem more seriously?

| January 4, 2013

  • lead gas 2
    The lead fight encapsulates all the promise and perils of pollution fights generally.
    Photo by Fotolia/Luis Santos

  • lead gas 2

The following article is posted with permission from Grist.

Kevin Drum has a fantastic piece in Mother Jones about the connection between lead and crime, as Philip noted earlier. It turns out that the rise and subsequent plunge in violent crime over the last half-century tracks almost exactly with the rise and decline of lead in the environment, mainly due to leaded gasoline. Through various studies, the correlation has been found at the international, national, state, city, and even neighborhood level. And there is copious neurological research showing that “even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ,” which makes a pretty strong (if defeasible) case for causation.

It’s a fascinating story for all sorts of reasons — and Drum’s been adding more tidbits on his blog — but as I was reading, the thing that kept striking me is how perfectly the lead fight encapsulates all the promise and perils of pollution fights generally.

We start using something before we understand whether it’s safe. We begin to discover it’s not safe. Industry obscures the science and viciously battles off regulation for as long as possible, forecasting economic doom. Lots of people get sick and die while they do so. Finally some regulations are put in place. The costs of complying turn out to be lower than anyone predicted. The benefits turn out to be much greater than anyone predicted. The pollutant turns out to be more harmful than originally thought. Despite all of the above, industry continues battling efforts to further reduce the pollutant, while claiming credit for the benefits of reducing it as much as they were forced to.

Over and over and over, this story plays out. Yet with each new pollution fight, it’s as though we’ve never had all the previous ones. (See: chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, smog, phthalates, etc.)

But there are other aspects of the lead story that resonate as well. For instance, one of the great mysteries in Drum’s piece is why, with the accumulation of so much evidence, criminologists and policymakers have not taken the lead explanation/problem more seriously.

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