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Leaded gasoline and violent crime

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Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Jan 03, 2013 10:36 am

Kevin Drum, one of my favorite bloggers, has been spending years exploring the relationship between leaded gasoline, neurological disorders, and violent crime.

It's truly remarkable how much explanatory power leaded gasoline has in the evolution of violent crime over the past 80 years. I'm convinced that a large part (not all, but a large part) of the decline in violent crime rates since the mid-1990s can be explained by the phasing out of leaded gasoline starting in the mid-1970s.

This isn't just a case of seeing a correlation and assuming it's causation. Every step in the process has been studied and is now pretty well understood:

* Lead in the environment produces elevated blood lead levels in children.

* Elevated blood levels in children produce physical damage to the neurological system. They also produce reduced IQ, reduced impulse control, poor ability to focus and to communicate verbally, increased attention-deficit disorders, etc.

* Finally, those impairments lead to a statistically significant increase in violent crime.

Banning leaded gasoline may have been the most effective crime-fighting technique of all time.

Here's Kevin's article: America's Real Criminal Element: Lead
Here's his blog post accompanying the article.

Image
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby gargantua » Thu Jan 03, 2013 11:25 am

Interesting. I've read a number of articles over the last few years that attributed the decrease in crime to the aging of the population. Do these studies take that into account?

I suspect it's a combination of factors, and not just one magic bullet. I'm glad the lead's gone in any event.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Jan 03, 2013 11:43 am

Aging doesn't really explain it, because there was a "mini baby boom" that led, post 1990s, to a small increase in the proportion of the population that was in the prime "violent crime" window ... but rates continued to drop.

Plus, you can see the same trend in other countries, with different demographics. The dramatic decline in crime rates doesn't follow demographics, it follows a country's effort to eliminate tetraethyl lead.

In the US, different states started eliminating leaded gasoline in different years. Sure enough, the violent crime rate started to fall first in the states that stopped using lead earliest.

As I understand it, statistically, lead exposure explains over half of the decline in violent crime. All other factors -- demographics, abortion, policing, incarceration, etc. -- explain the remainder.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Jan 03, 2013 12:00 pm

Meanwhile, in recent years the incarceration rate has also begun to decline, although almost nobody has noticed.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby Detritus » Thu Jan 03, 2013 12:24 pm

Has anyone checked the plumbing in Congress lately? Just asking.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby eriedasch » Thu Jan 03, 2013 1:01 pm

kurt_w wrote:Meanwhile, in recent years the incarceration rate has also begun to decline, although almost nobody has noticed.

Maybe when the U.S. no longer leads the entire world by such a substantial margin people might notice.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_co ... ation_rate
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Jan 03, 2013 1:11 pm

That's going to take a long time...
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Thu Jan 03, 2013 1:18 pm

Actually, not necessarily that long. The incarceration rate dropped by 2% in the past year. Keep that up and by 2016 the US would no longer "lead the world".

-----------------------------------------
Edited to add: here's a graph showing the proportion of the adult population that is imprisoned, on probation, or on parole:

Image

I'd prefer to show this as incarceration rates, which actually dropped even more in the past couple of years, but this is a pretty good substitute.
Last edited by kurt_w on Fri Jan 04, 2013 7:02 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby snoqueen » Thu Jan 03, 2013 5:02 pm

See? One more reason our gun laws are just fine the way they are.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby fennel » Thu Jan 03, 2013 5:57 pm

snoqueen wrote:See? One more reason our gun laws are just fine the way they are.
"Guns don't kill people. Lead kills people."
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Fri Jan 04, 2013 6:58 am

This is neat. It turns out that incarceration rates for younger age groups have been falling, while rates for older age groups have been rising. Compare 2001 (blue) to 2011 (red):

Image

Over the past decade, the distribution of incarceration rates by age group has clearly shifted towards older groups. That's exactly what you'd expect if an older generation with lead-addled neurological systems was gradually being replaced by a less impaired younger generation.

There is something of a tradition -- going back literally centuries -- of older generations grousing about how awful the younger generation is. Here's a case where the opposite is true: as those of us born in the pre-1970s era of plentiful tetraethyl lead gradually age and start dying off, we're being replaced by younger people who are smarter, healthier, less prone to violence, and with fewer cognitive impairments.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Fri Jan 04, 2013 12:12 pm

This story keeps getting more and more convincing.

Kevin Drum has another post up today, this time about lead paint instead of tetraethyl lead in gasoline.

For the MoJo article that I linked in the first post in this thread, he focused on leaded gasoline because that rose and then fell dramatically during the post-WWII period when we have detailed crime statistics.

If you want to look at lead paint, you need to go back to the pre-WWII era, when crime statistics weren't documented as thoroughly. But there's one crime -- murder -- that is well documented before WWII.

If you combine measurements of environmental lead from paint and gasoline, and compare it to homicide statistics, here's the pattern, with a 21-year lag:

Image

Note that the rise in the murder rate post-1960 appears to precede the rise in lead. That's probably just an indication that the 21-year lag isn't a perfect fit and also that there are other factors than just lead involved in the crime rate.

But, overall, this is about the most convincing relationship you'll ever see in the social sciences.

Getting rid of lead in gasoline and in new paint was good. Spending to mitigate the exposure to "legacy" lead paint in older homes would also be a good investment.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby snoqueen » Fri Jan 04, 2013 4:03 pm

OK, but what happened in 1998-2011 that was different? Some new environmental or dietary toxin?
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby kurt_w » Fri Jan 04, 2013 4:44 pm

That's probably the new "baseline" due to the legacy of environmental lead from the past century. If you want to reduce that, you need to actively work on mitigating existing lead paint, etc.

The figure being bandied about this week is that a dollar of work on remediating lead paint etc. would save on the order of ten dollars down the road. But that savings would occur 20+ years after the remediation was done.
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Re: Leaded gasoline and violent crime

Postby doppel » Fri Jan 04, 2013 8:38 pm

kurt_w wrote:
The figure being bandied about this week is that a dollar of work on remediating lead paint etc. would save on the order of ten dollars down the road. But that savings would occur 20+ years after the remediation was done.


Talk about blowing out your ass. With all those increased earnings due to higher IQ's, its gotta be at least $1000 dollars returned for every $1 spent, maybe more. Think of the childern, for God's sakes. And you'll just be "taxing" a bunch of landlord basterds. Why replacing all the windows and ripping out the plaster, housing the tenants during re-constrution, can't cost a lot more than your average 60+ year old building is worth. In some cases, little more than several times the current mortgage. Sounds like an idea Neil Heinen can jump on the bandwagon for.
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