Yesterday, New York state passed the most stringent gun laws in the US, and at a press conference this morning, President Obama detailed what he wants Congress to pass on comprehensive gun reform.
As the US ruminates over what should be done to bring down gun violence, a key environmental link has surfaced.
An eye-opening investigative report by Mother Jones shows there's a compelling link between lead in the environment - mostly emissions from automobiles - and violent crime trends in America.
Data gathered in cities both large and small, not just in the US but also in Australia, Canada, the UK, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand and West Germany, shows the same trend: crime rates track closely with gasoline lead emissions ... after a 20-year lag.
Crime rates quadrupled from the 1940s through the 1970s, and then plummeted after the introduction of unleaded gasoline.
"Like many good theories, the gasoline lead hypothesis helps explain some things we might not have realized even needed explaining. For example, murder rates have always been higher in big cities than in towns and small cities. But as lead levels in gasoline decreased, the differences between big and small cities largely went away. And guess what? The difference in murder rates went away too. Today, homicide rates are similar in cities of all sizes. It may be that violent crime isn't an inevitable consequence of being a big city after all," notes Mother Jones journalist Kevin Drum.
Recent neurological studies lend additional credibility to these conclusions. Lead exposure even at low levels during childhood can seriously reduce IQ levels – permanently. These concentrations can cause physical damage to the brain, affecting the ability to control emotions or impulses, reducing attention spans and impairing verbal reasoning.
Many of these characteristics fit the classic profile of a violent young offender.
"Needless to say, not every child exposed to lead is destined for a life of crime. Everyone over the age of 40 was probably exposed to too much lead during childhood, and most of us suffered nothing more than a few points of IQ loss. But there were plenty of kids already on the margin, and millions of those kids were pushed over the edge from being merely slow or disruptive to becoming part of a nationwide epidemic of violent crime. Once you understand that, it all becomes blindingly obvious. Of course massive lead exposure among children of the postwar era led to larger numbers of violent criminals in the '60s and beyond. And of course when that lead was removed in the '70s and '80s, the children of that generation lost those artificially heightened violent tendencies," says Drum.
Removing lead from homes and soil would cost $20 billion a year for two decades, a price few in government are willing to pay right now. But the return on investment would be huge. A 10% drop in crime could reasonably produce economic benefits as high as $150 billion per year, partly from the vastly increased cognitive abilities of our population.
With all this evidence, why don't we hear about the lead-crime connection from criminologists and policymakers? One thing that's clear is that pollution isn't just an "environmental" problem that "burdens corporations with regulations."
Read the Mother Jones article: