Did unleaded gasoline spark a decline in crime?

Many Western nations have experienced significant declines in crime in recent decades, but could the removal of lead from petrol explain that?

Working away in his laboratory in 1921, Thomas Midgley wanted to fuel a brighter tomorrow. He created tetraethyl lead – a compound that would make car engines more efficient than ever.

But did the lead that we added to our petrol do something so much worse? Was it the cause of a decades-long crime wave that is only now abating as the poisonous element is removed from our environment?

For most of the 20th Century crime rose and rose and rose. Every time a new home secretary took office in the UK – or their equivalents in justice and interior ministries elsewhere – officials would show them graphs and mumble apologetically that there was nothing they could do to stop crime rising.

Then, about 20 years ago, the trend reversed – and all the broad measures of key crimes have been falling ever since…

If your nation locks up more criminals than the average, crime has fallen. If it locks up fewer… crime has fallen. Nobody seems to know for sure why.

But there are some people that believe the removal of lead from petrol was a key factor.

Lead can be absorbed into bones, teeth and blood. It causes kidney damage, inhibits body growth, causes abdominal pain, anaemia and can damage the nervous system. More than a century ago, a royal commission recommended to British ministers that women shouldn’t work in lead-related industry because of damage to their reproductive organs.

By the 1970s, studies showed that children could even be poisoned by chewing fingernails harbouring tiny flecks of old leaded paint from their homes and schools.

Studies have shown that exposure to lead during pregnancy reduces the head circumference of infants. In children and adults, it causes headaches, inhibits IQ and can lead to aggressive or dysfunctional behaviour.

If you want to understand the causes of crime – and be tough on them – you need to start with lead, says Dr Bernard Gesch, a physiologist at Oxford University who has studied the effect of diet and other environmental factors on criminals.

RTFA for pros and cons and all the gray areas in between. It’s an interesting study that needs to be pursued further – and needs to be tracked as we continue to detox our population from lead.

Those who claim no link between lead poisoning even at minute levels and behavior are decades out of date. I did a wee bit of support work for physicians connected with the original work done by MCHR, the Medical Committee for Human Rights, in and around the Yale School for Public Health. At the vector of children affected by lead paint, the effects were direct and substantial.

Still, read on. Think about it.

11 thoughts on “Did unleaded gasoline spark a decline in crime?

  1. Update says:

    “Lead exposure alters the trajectory of children’s lives decades later, study finds” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/28/lead-exposure-alters-the-trajectory-of-childrens-lives-decades-later-study-finds/ The findings were published Tuesday in JAMA http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2613157
    See also accompanying editorial, “Childhood Lead Exposure and Adult Outcomes” By David C. Bellinger, PhD http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2613136

    • Oyez says:

      Supreme Court rejects appeal from Conagra, Sherwin-Williams in $400 million lead-paint case (Chicago Tribune Oct 15, 2018) http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-conagra-lead-paint-supreme-court-20181015-story.html The rebuff, issued without comment Monday, is a blow to business groups, which had called for high court review in the hope of derailing other suits over climate change, opioid addiction and gun violence. Ten California cities and counties sued the companies for creating a “public nuisance” by promoting lead paint. The cities and counties said the companies and their trade associations promoted lead paint as safe well after they learned that it caused irreversible neurological harm, particularly to children. Lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978 but remains on the walls of many homes.

  2. ...but wait says:

    “Leaded gas was phased out 25 years ago. Why are these planes still using toxic fuel?
    Piston-engine aircraft remain the single largest source of highly toxic airborne lead.” (ABC News 4/22/21) https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/leaded-gas-was-phased-out-25-years-ago-why-are-n1264970
    “…While leaded gasoline was fully phased out in 1996 with the passage of the Clean Air Act, it still fuels a fleet of 170,000 piston-engine airplanes and helicopters. Leaded aviation fuel, or avgas, now makes up “the largest remaining aggregate source of lead emissions to air in the U.S.,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
    The presence of this fuel means the areas near these airports are often inundated with tiny lead particles, according to a 2020 report from the EPA. Lead has been proven to have a detrimental impact on children’s brains and nervous systems.
    After 15 years of research, the EPA said it would issue a ruling, known as an “endangerment finding,” in 2018 that would unlock a legal mandate to start driving down leaded aviation fuel. But it has yet to do so.” (see links)
    CDC: “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified” https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/blood-lead-levels.htm

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