Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lead poisoning

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that global crime levels have continued to fall.

There is a fascinating theory that this has to do with the amount of lead pollution, so crime levels rose markedly between the 1940s and 1970s when more and more people were driving cars with leaded petrol, then most countries started phasing in lead-free petrol, and once the last babies born during the leaded era had passed the prime age for turning to a life of crime (between 15 and 20), crime levels started falling in the 1990s and continue to fall to this day.

It might be complete hokum or coincidence, or it might actually be true, who knows?

Read up at The Telegraph or The Guardian according to political taste.

Rather amusingly, the man who originally suggested putting lead in petrol (strictly speaking, tetraethyl lead) to make the engine run more smoothly was also the man who developed chloro-fluourocarbons (CFC gases), a one Mr Thomas Midgely, Jr.

UPDATE. BobE alerts us to other links between lead and crime: for example Britain's most prolific church lead theft gang jailed or Lithuanian gang who ran Britain's most prolific church lead thefts jailed.

7 comments:

Sackerson said...

I worked at a large secondary school in north Birmingham in the 1980s, where they did academic testing of new entrants. One year, the average percentage score from a feeder primary dropped a couple of points - like a change in the temnperature of the sea, that was significant - and the only factor we could see that had changed was that these children were born after the M6 had opened - a motorway flyover was built pretty much over the school and its catchment area.

Chuck said...

In Al Capone's day, they found high speed lead poisoning quite effective round this time of year.

Mark Wadsworth said...

S, most interesting.

Ch, so clearly there is an association between lead and violent crime. That proves it.

A K Haart said...

I did a lot of lead analysis on soils in the seventies and it was one of the few pollutants that worried me. We never bought a house near a main road for example.

Correlation isn't causation, but this one is probably worth investigating. Putting lead in petrol was always dumb.

Mark Wadsworth said...

AKH, correlation isn't causation, but it has long been accepted that lead is bad for the workings of the brain in a purely physical sense (or at least that is what I have understood).

Not that there's much we can do about it now, but it would be interesting to know.

The Stigler said...

It's sometimes suggested that the fall of the Roman Empire is linked to their tastes for sauces growing, sauces that were cooked in lead pots, leading to some of the madness.

Mark Wadsworth said...

TS, I was thinking about the Romans too, but I don't know how much lead poisoning you get from pots and pans (and plumbing), compared to lead poisoning from breathing in fumes.