Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lead poisoning: How much of a factor in delinquency and violent crime?

Millions of children, including tens of thousands in Detroit, are afflicted with an illness that permanently lowers their IQ; damages their neurological systems and makes them prone to erratic, aggressive and violent behavior.

The affliction is lead poisoning, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that many of our children are suffering from it – through exposure routes including lead paint dust in old homes,contaminated soil in (mostly) urban areas and even children's toys. About 1 in 25 children tested nationally have elevated lead levels, more than 3 million kids. If this travesty were the result of bad children's vitamins or contaminated applesauce it would be front-page national news. Instead, it's been a slow, painful struggle to reduce kids' exposure to lead.

We’ve made great strides. Leaded gasoline was banned in the 1970s (over the strenuous objections of industry) and lead paint was banned in 1977 (over the strenuous objections of industry) and we’re cracking down on lead in children’s toys, too (over the strenuous….oh…you know the rest).
Yet there’s enough old lead hanging around to ruin the lives of families across the nation.

In 2002 I helped write a lengthy series of stories in the Detroit Free Press on lead poisoning in Michigan. During the course of research, we found a lot of evidence that lead poisoning was a significant factor in juvenile delinquency: Kids with this poison coursing through their veins were more prone to learning disabilities, violent outburst, anti-social behavior, etc.

That sort of thing is hard, perhaps impossible, to quantify. And it goes against the popularly held wisdom that delinquent children in the inner city are necessarily the result of single-parent households, the welfare state, or Democrats.

So I found it fascinating to read a short segment in "The Week" Magazine, exploring various explanations for recent decreases in crime nationwide:

One intriguing hypothesis about why Americans were so prone to violence in the 1980s was that many young people were suffering the effects of lead poisoning. The link between lead poisoning and aggressive or impulsive behavior is well established. And peaks in children’s exposure to the toxic metal, first due to lead paint and then to leaded gasoline, were followed roughly 20 years later by two of the 20th century’s worst crime eras. Under this theory, the phasing out of lead paint and leaded gasoline explains the reduction in crime.

It probably cost consumers some money, at least initially, to buy gasoline formulated without lead, and then lead-free house paint. Who's to say how much money we've saved by not having to treat -- both medically and criminally -- the damaged lives that would have resulted otherwise?


1 comment:

  1. The Wayne County Prosecutor is playing politics with poisoned kids. For the reasons Hugh mentions, we need you to take action now. This can't wait for the next election. 1. Stay on top of the story by reading the Spirit of Detroit blog; and 2. Sign the petition to fix Detroit's lead program.