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.”