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Tue Jan 8, 2013, 06:35 AM

Yes, lead poisoning could really be a cause of violent crime [View all]

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/07/violent-crime-lead-poisoning-british-export?intcmp=122


The Innospec factory at Ellesmere Port, in Cheshire, Britain, on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. Photograph: Colin Mcpherson

At first it seemed preposterous. The hypothesis was so exotic that I laughed. The rise and fall of violent crime during the second half of the 20th century and first years of the 21st were caused, it proposed, not by changes in policing or imprisonment, single parenthood, recession, crack cocaine or the legalisation of abortion, but mainly by lead.

I don't mean bullets. The crime waves that afflicted many parts of the world and then, against all predictions, collapsed, were ascribed, in an article published by Mother Jones last week, to the rise and fall in the use of lead-based paint and leaded petrol.

It's ridiculous until you see the evidence. Studies between cities, states and nations show that the rise and fall in crime follows, with a roughly 20-year lag, the rise and fall in the exposure of infants to trace quantities of lead. But all that gives us is correlation: an association that could be coincidental. The Mother Jones article, which is based on several scientific papers, claimed causation.

I began by reading the papers. Do they say what the article claims? They do. Then I looked up the citations: the discussion of those papers in the scientific literature. The three whose citations I checked have been mentioned, between them, 301 times. I went through all these papers (except the handful in foreign languages), as well as dozens of others. To my astonishment, I could find just one study attacking the thesis, and this was sponsored by the Ethyl Corporation, which happens to have been a major manufacturer of the petrol additive tetraethyl lead. I found many more supporting it. Crazy as this seems, it really does look as if lead poisoning could be the major cause of the rise and fall of violent crime.

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