A Previously Unacknowledged Environmental Disaster

What happens when you expose a generation of kids
to high levels of lead?  Crime data two decades later
tell a startling story.
The "lead crime" theory is the shorthand for a thesis advanced by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones magazine.  This is an article that provides a link list to many of the articles he has written.

To briefly summarize the argument: The extraordinary rise in crime during the 60's and 70's were probably caused by widespread urban lead poisoning, primarily from the lead in gasoline and consequently in the atmosphere.  The arguments for the theory are quite persuasive; you shouldn't dismiss them without reading the articles and the evidence that support the theory. 

Lead contamination has effects on mental development that would diminish inhibition about anger and violence.  The densest areas of human population would have the highest lead contamination from both gasoline and lead-based paints.  Crime statistics started dropping as the young people who grew up after lead was removed from gasoline came into young adulthood, and continues to drop despite the ups and downs of the economy and the ebbs and flows of the drug problem.  The theory is borne out internationally: the same patterns exist across cultures.  

Again, read the articles.  

They say that if you live long enough, you will see most of what you thought to be true proven false, or outdated, or no longer relevant.  This Lead-Crime theory is devastating to contemporary political and social thinking, liberal, radical, conservative and centrist.  

Just consider the role that the fact of black urban crime has played in the US history over the last 50 years.  Consider the role of the urban uprisings played in shaping our thinking.

The 60's-70's wave of Black Urban Crime and the Urban Uprisings were events that needed an explanation. like the tragic death of a small child needs an explanation.

I would argue that almost every political school of thought, then and now, attempts such an explanation.  And each theory makes a projection about the character of the African American urban poor, and proposes policies in response.  The one that seems to have prevailed is that there is something wrong with "those people", and that incarceration of "their" young men is the only solution.

The Left made their own projection; they assumed that the urban uprisings showed that the urban poor were on the brink of revolution.  One of the most dated aspects of the 1969 Black Empowerment controversy in the UUA was the presumption that the Black Revolution had already begun.  Would integrationist organizations like the UUA provide material support to it? 

And Liberals made their own condescending analysis, that the urban poor were victims of systemic racism, but irrational and given to temper tantrums which were "understandable, but not justifiable." Liberals managed to earn the contempt of both the Left and the Right as they tried to walk that particular line.

But the Lead-Crime theory says that the heart of the issue was not sociological, but medical.  Or more precisely, a environmentally based public health problem.  The pre-occupation of our national intellectual culture with race made it hard to see what was really going on.

The intersection of a catastrophic environmental disaster with a racist system of housing segregation and a racist law enforcement and criminal justice system set off a bomb in US cities.  The pre-occupation of our national intellectual culture with race made it hard to see what was really going on.

Politically and socially, we live in the rubble of that explosion.  Yes, the elimination of lead in gasoline may have been a major factor in the persistently falling crime statistics and the equalization of crime rates in urban, suburban and rural areas, but much of our political/social/economic thinking is still built around the explanations for urban crime and urban uprisings from the past.  Explanations that may have been much more incorrect than accurate. 


  1. Interesting. I wonder what happened to the last decade's theory that it was the availability of abortion that reduced the crime wave.

  2. Nate W6:37 PM

    I'd like to read more on this; it's interesting.
    But wouldn't lead content and any associated crime be separated? Wouldn't crime rates be a fairly long lagging indicator?
    More thoughts to contemplate for me, I suppose. :)

  3. Nate, it's about a consistent twenty year gap. If you look closely at the chart, you will see the two lines track each other but the time period is different. Your question is what I first thought, too.


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