Exhaust Pipe vs. Crack Pipe: Which Causes More Crime?


A new study suggests that not only did getting rid of leaded gasoline reduce air pollution, it may have also reduced murder rates.


According to Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, phasing out leaded gasoline in the United States resulted in a steady drop in crime. She points to the early 1990s in America, where a surge in the number of teenagers would have normally threatened a massive crime wave.

Instead of rampant crime among young people, however, the crime rate actually dropped in the US during this period. This has been attributed to a large variety of sources, including more police, the end of the crack epidemic, and larger populations in prisons, but Reyes suggests that it can be explained by the removal of lead paint and leaded gasoline.

Reyes started her research into the effects of lead after moving out of an old, lead painted townhouse when her child was born. She discovered that leaded gasoline, rather than paint, had actually been the main source of lead in air and water.

Lead, even at low levels, can cause minor brain damage in children, making them less intelligent and, occasionally, more aggressive and impulsive. A study by Harold Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist and pediatrician, recently completed a study that showed higher levels of lead in juvenile delinquents when compared to their peers.

After leaded gasoline was phased out following the Clean Air Act in the 1970s and 80s, lead levels in Americans’ blood dropped immensely. According to Reyes, the rise and fall of violent crime statistics appeared to match that of lead exposure rates, but with a 20 year wait. This wait could possibly be explained by the children exposed to the highest lead levels in the early 1970s reaching their most violent years in the early 1990s.

Reyes admits that her data shows only a correlation, rather than causation. She suggests that a variety of factors more than likely played a part in the drop in crime in the early 90s, but that she believes exposure to leaded gasoline plays an extensive part.

This theory will be able to be explored more thoroughly over the coming years as children from countries that got rid of leaded gasoline later mature.

It seems to us that, between the massive environmental damage that leaded gasoline is shown to cause and, possibly, effects on childrens’ brains, it seems best to do away with it altogether.

Source: New York Times

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