Chemical & Engineering News takes a look at the thesis, previously reported here, that the drop in levels of lead contributed to the U.S. crime decline. Lead gasoline has gradually phrased out, and lead-based paint was banned from newly built homes in 1978. Children born in the mid- to late-1970s grew up with less lead in their bodies than children born earlier. As a result, economists argue, kids born in the '70s reached adulthood in the '90s with healthier brains and less of a penchant for violence.
“If you have a brain that's miswired, especially in areas involved in what psychologists call the executive functions—judgment, impulse control, anticipation of consequences—of course you might display aggressive behavior,” says Kim Dietrich, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Still, there are nearly a half-million children between the ages of one and five with a blood-lead level above the recommended threshold. These are mostly kids who are growing up in dilapidated inner-city houses with lead paint still on the walls or in neighborhoods with elevated levels of lead in the soil. Despite progress in lowering lead levels in the environment, these kids would benefit from the reevaluation of crime policies and reinvigoration of cleanup efforts, says University of Colorado criminologist Paul Stretesky. “People who are suffering the most from lead exposure are those that tend to be poor, minority, and low income.”