New Report Shows Violent Crime Rates Linked to Lead Poisoning

The rise and fall of leaded gasoline directly mimics the arc of violent crime in America.

The rate of violent crime in the U.S. has been falling for years now, but no one seems to know why. Many different theories have been tossed around, including the legalization of abortion, the end of the “crack epidemic,” the rise in prison populations, and new policing tactics just to name a few. Although each of these theories has an element to them that may have played a part in the drop in violent crime across the nation, none of them quite fit all the facts. Except one, lead poisoning. In fact, a report in Mother Jones states,

The rise and fall of leaded gasoline directly mimics the arc of violent crime in America, on a 23-year time lag. In fact, studies show the same correlation in countries around the world, six US cities, and even a New Orleans neighborhood.

What is even more telling is that the science of lead poisoning fits too. Led intake has been linked to lower IQs, delayed development, and the likelihood to commit crimes later in life. Although millions of children who inhaled the same led from car exhaust from the 1940s-70s did not turn to a life of violent crime, those balancing on the edge were pushed over from being considered simply slow or mildly disruptive to becoming players in what became a “nationwide epidemic of violent crime.”

With the tighter control of exhaust emissions, better car engines, and cleaner burning fuel the levels of lead in the environment have gone down significantly. And so has the rate of violent crime in America. However, although rates for lead have been dropping which reduces overall exposure to developing children, molecules still lurk in soil and at least 16 million homes across the nation. The cleanup would cost billions, but would save trillions of dollars and uncounted lives in the long run. As the report says, “[It] could turn out to be the cheapest, most effective crime prevention tool we have. And we could start doing it tomorrow.”

 Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

About Kathryn DeHoyos

Kathryn DeHoyos currently resides on the outskirts of Austin, TX. She has 2 beautiful children, and is very happily un-married to her life partner DJ.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Couple of problems. The putative results of childhood exposure to lead–deficient impulse control, for example–are permanent. So, if someone is diagnosed as clinically incapable of normal impulse control, what do we do? Do we really want to go there? Should we be locking up the diagnosed in addition to the criminals? Forcing meds on them? Giving them a permanent record as possibly unsuitable for civilized living?
    Second, deciding to concentrate this in the urban neighborhoods will be labeling…urban neighborhoods as full of people with deficient impulse control and a propensity for crime.

    And there is another factor. Lead paint abatement has been going on for decades. Possibly that has something to do with the situation.

  2. Better Still – we just need a smoking gun from some petroleum giant that they knew tetra ethyl lead was a danger and they can be sued back into the stone age. Would make Tobacco look like extremely small potatoes.

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