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Leaded gasoline and violent crime

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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Gentle Man » Thu Apr 24, 2014 1:15 pm

kurt_w wrote:You know, the identity in spelling between "lead" and "lead" really makes communication difficult on this topic....


Thus Led Zeppelin.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Gentle Man » Thu Apr 24, 2014 1:18 pm

Francis Di Domizio wrote:lack of other viable options


So if you're educated, financially secure and so on, you should be able to munch lead paint and pump gas along a busy Interstate (in the old days) all you wish with little danger of becoming a violent criminal?
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Apr 24, 2014 1:19 pm

For anyone new to this thread, I just want to make sure that these two sources don't get overlooked. If you want to learn about the relationship between Pb exposure, cognitive impairment, and violent crime, these are the places to start:

kurt_w wrote:A good place to start is this article by Lauren Wolf in Chemical & Engineering News. It covers a lot of the research and has links to many of the actual peer-reviewed studies on this topic.

Kevin Drum's reporting on this is also definitely useful, and it's all available here.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Gentle Man » Thu Apr 24, 2014 1:36 pm

In the end they just keep going back to a graph showing a decrease in violent crime with a graph showing a decrease in the use of leaded gasoline. But a LOT of things happened during that time that could account for a decrease in violent crime. Removing lead from gasoline was just one of many things that reflected a change in outlook on the environment in a broad sense of the word. For example, changes in how society regarded and dealt with mental illness. Yes, gun laws got more liberal too. Changes in the educational system for special ed and people with learning disabilities. Recognition of the effects of bullying. Even a push to eat in a more healthy manner. A good economy during large stretches of this era happened also, as did laws cracking down on repeat offenders, e.g., 3-strike laws. These and many other societal changes coincide with reducing the amount of lead someone ingests. Is there a way that assures us we're giving credit where it's due and not just congratulating someone who happen to be in the same room at the right time? Could it have been a result of a cumulative effect of all these things, or a number of them? The original post gives a significant amount of the credit to a reduction in lead exposure. So the question is whether the justification for that is really all there.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Francis Di Domizio » Thu Apr 24, 2014 2:07 pm

Gentle Man wrote:
Francis Di Domizio wrote:lack of other viable options


So if you're educated, financially secure and so on, you should be able to munch lead paint and pump gas along a busy Interstate (in the old days) all you wish with little danger of becoming a violent criminal?


I don't know, you could test that theory for us.

You asked if there was something more than poverty that drive crime in that area. Some people are able to find other ways to support themselves, and maintain their faith in the socially acceptable route to survival. Others can't and don't and turn to crime to survive and validate their worth. Lack of respect for themselves and others probably doesn't help.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Apr 24, 2014 2:09 pm

Gentle Man wrote:In the end they just keep going back to a graph showing a decrease in violent crime with a graph showing a decrease in the use of leaded gasoline.

Again, you're ignoring all the other stuff that they discuss.

Like the Cincinnati study that made repeated tests of blood lead levels in several hundred children, then found that the ones with highest levels had much higher arrest rates in adulthood than those whose childhood blood lead levels were lower.

And the study that found that children whose teachers identify them as having problems with aggression and self-control systematically have higher levels of lead than the rest.

And then there are the studies showing that lead exposure leads to observable anomalies in areas in the brain that are responsible for judgement, impulse control, and other processes that allow us to control our behavior.

And so on.

Look, obviously the best way to establish a relationship would be to take two matched populations of children, expose one to high concentrations of lead, leave the other as a control, and see what happens. But equally obviously, no one will ever do that.

Instead, a large number of studies have examined all the parts of this chain --

* Yes, exposure to lead does vary widely from place to place
* Yes, exposure to lead does vary widely from person to person
* Yes, individuals with more exposure manifest problems with their brain development
* Yes, individuals with more exposure tend to have reduced self-control, lower IQ, and more of a tendency towards aggression and violence
* Yes, individuals with more exposure are more prone to be arrested for violent crimes later in life

Given all of that, you would a priori expect lead exposure to be a strong predictor of violent crime rates. And then other studies find that:

* Crime rates are correlated with lead exposure across US cities
* Crime rates are correlated with lead exposure at the county level
* Crime rates are correlated with lead exposure across states, and states who phased out leaded gasoline first had their crime rates drop first
* Crime rates are correlated with lead exposure in other countries

There is no other factor you can name that has such a strong empirical connection to violent crime.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Apr 24, 2014 2:15 pm

Gentle Man wrote:Could it have been a result of a cumulative effect of all these things, or a number of them?

As I understand it, the reduction in lead exposure explains well over 50% of the drop in crime rates since the 1980s. But it doesn't explain 100%.

So lead is the main culprit, but some (many?) other things also will have contributed to the drop in crime rates.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby jman111 » Thu Apr 24, 2014 2:16 pm

Gentle Man wrote:
Henry Vilas wrote:
Francis Di Domizio wrote:Henry, I don't get what you are trying to say.

I was just trying to counter Gentle Man's attempt to dispel the connection between poverty and crime when considering the affects of lead exposure.


I wasn't attempting to dispel a connection. I'm simply suggested that there has to be something more than just poverty to lead to crime. What is that "more?"
As I understand it, the hypothesized effect is on decision-making ability, right?
There are a lot of decisions to be made in life. Not all poor decisions result in criminality- context matters. While one's poor decision may result in theft of parents' valuables (and no criminality), another's poor decision may lead to criminal charges (for very similar actions).
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby snoqueen » Thu Apr 24, 2014 4:56 pm

I think what Gman is fishing for is some affirmation that people who commit crimes or are just incompetent at life's tasks can't be exonerated because they have brain damage from lead.

I don't think anybody here is suggesting that. Instead, what is being suggested is mitigating this exposure so the next generation is not similarly burdened. To some extent the numbers show this is already being done in the US.

At the same time, you'll always have people who make bad decisions like driving drunk. Why? Why why why?

Anybody who believes there's one single clear answer is being unrealistic. Sometimes there is no answer at all. We can try to make these bad choices more difficult, less acceptable, less likely, and more costly, but at some point realists have to acknowledge the why question will just forever hang out there like something in a Shakespearean tragedy.

People make bad choices because if everybody made good choices, they wouldn't be choices at all.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Mon May 19, 2014 7:05 am

US prison admission rates are accelerating downward:

Image

Less violent crime, fewer people in prison, fewer lives ruined, more money left to spend on useful things.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Gentle Man » Mon May 19, 2014 11:23 am

snoqueen wrote:I think what Gman is fishing for is some affirmation that people who commit crimes or are just incompetent at life's tasks can't be exonerated because they have brain damage from lead.


I'm not fishing for anything, and as a strict determinist, trying to find a reason to assign moral blame on criminals isn't even in my playbook. So you couldn't be more wrong, Sno.

But I'm also naturally a skeptic, and I set high standards for what I am going to believe. As such, I'm not going to just uncritically accept the leaded gas leads to violent crime and unleaded gas makes for decrease in violent crime theory while there are still questions that need explanation. I'm still skeptical of why the attributed affects of lead in gasoline seem to target by socioeconomic class. I'm also curious why, long after unleaded gas was introduced, and supposedly having a beneficial effect on the crime rate, crime rates continued to rise to their all-time-highs in places like Washington, D.C. and Detroit. And I find it hard to believe that the exposure to lead in gasoline in Milwaukee varied significantly by having the Milwaukee River as the barrier. That makes no sense.

So, yeah maybe exposure to leaded gas has some effect, but I don't see evidence to suggest it should be given as much credit as some seem to want to give it. I see the causes of crime to be numerous and complex environmental factors primarily, and perhaps the most important related to the basic family life and the values that are emphasized within the family. As I said before, the majority of people who are poor, go to the same schools, suffer the same effects of prejudice and are exposed to the same levels of lead as criminals never become criminals. What else can we point to that keeps the majority of people who suffer all the many disadvantages that we typically blame for crime from becoming criminals?
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Mon May 19, 2014 1:31 pm

Skepticism is good. The one thing I'd emphasize, though, is that many of your questions are answered in great detail in the various sources that have already been mentioned in this thread.

Gentle Man wrote: I'm still skeptical of why the attributed affects of lead in gasoline seem to target by socioeconomic class.

Because socioeconomic class affects where people live. Poor people tend to live close to freeways and dense neighborhoods with heavy emissions from lead-gas-burning vehicles. Upper class families can afford to live in neighborhoods with cleaner air, on streets with less traffic, and on lots where the house is set back further from roads.

Maybe part of the source of your skepticism here is if you're thinking about exposure to tetraethyl lead in liquid gasoline, rather than in airborne form after that gasoline is burned?

Gentle Man wrote:I'm also curious why, long after unleaded gas was introduced, and supposedly having a beneficial effect on the crime rate, crime rates continued to rise to their all-time-highs in places like Washington, D.C. and Detroit.

That's an easier one. The cognitive health impacts of lead are primarily driven by exposure during infancy and the preschool years, but the effects on criminal violence develop later (toddlers aren't out mugging people). So there's a generational time lag between when lead is phased out and when violent crime begins to drop.

I don't have handy data for Washington DC or Detroit, but here's New Orleans:

Image

Basically, the last generation exposed to airborne lead from gasoline (infants/toddlers in the 1970s) were in their prime years for violent crime in the early 1990s. Children born after the phaseout began (post-1970s) had much lower violent crime rates than children born just a few years earlier.

I don't know if there have been specific studies of Milwaukee, but my guess is it's similar to the patterns in other cities that have been studied.

Again, it's important to note that tetraethyl lead in gasoline wasn't 100% deterministic of violent crime. There were (and are) other factors, too. But there's a lot of evidence that most of the 1960s-1990s violent crime wave can be attributed to lead. Not all, but most.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Gentle Man » Mon May 19, 2014 2:41 pm

Alright, I want to be fair. I'll look over your data with more care and see if I'm swayed by it. Like I said, I haven't ruled anything out, except uncritical belief.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Ninja » Mon May 19, 2014 6:55 pm

Gentle Man wrote:In the end they just keep going back to a graph showing a decrease in violent crime with a graph showing a decrease in the use of leaded gasoline. But a LOT of things happened during that time that could account for a decrease in violent crime. Removing lead from gasoline was just one of many things that reflected a change in outlook on the environment in a broad sense of the word. For example, changes in how society regarded and dealt with mental illness. Yes, gun laws got more liberal too. Changes in the educational system for special ed and people with learning disabilities. Recognition of the effects of bullying. Even a push to eat in a more healthy manner. A good economy during large stretches of this era happened also, as did laws cracking down on repeat offenders, e.g., 3-strike laws. These and many other societal changes coincide with reducing the amount of lead someone ingests. Is there a way that assures us we're giving credit where it's due and not just congratulating someone who happen to be in the same room at the right time? Could it have been a result of a cumulative effect of all these things, or a number of them? The original post gives a significant amount of the credit to a reduction in lead exposure. So the question is whether the justification for that is really all there.


I share your skepticism but I think I lean more towards optimistic skepticism. You have a totally legitimate list of public policy and behavior changes over the last ~30 years that could realistically explain a drop in crime, but those changes were mostly implemented piecemeal, state by state, year by year, over that period. Many states realized a significant drop in crime even if they hadn't done much of anything.

The near total elimination of new lead and the mitigation of existing lead happened nationwide over a comparitively short period of time, and crime rates dropped nationwide a similar rate regardless of any individual state's firearms or corrections or mental health policy changes. That drop in crime lagged behind the elimitation/mitigation of lead, but to me it provides a more satisfying explanation for how all these dispirate policy changes could lead to a measurable change nationwide.

But I just got from happy hour and realized that I typed all that based off half-remembered articles I read six months ago, and I could be totally off base. Pretty sure I remember being impressed by how well the lead theory explained the near uniformity in reduction of crime levels though. Now I'll go actually read some links and see if my BS makes any sense.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Wed Aug 13, 2014 5:52 am

As noted up-thread, the proposed mechanism here is that lead interferes with the development of brain structures related to impulse control and your ability to control your own behavior.

Early childhood exposure to lead increases the risk of violent crime. A new study shows that it also increases rates of other behavioral problems, such as teenage pregnancy.

Kevin Drum comments on the implications of this. First, he notes that conservatives and liberals came up with very different explanations for crime and other perceived social breakdown in the 1970s-1990s. But the main source of all these problems wasn't exactly what either side was talking about. It wasn't due to bad morals or loss of family values, and it wasn't (directly) due to poverty or inequality:

Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.

This doesn't mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don't make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we've learned a valuable lesson: don't poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.
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