Youth Violence: The lead cause? | Bleader

Youth Violence: The lead cause?


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With the Derrion Albert beating death in the news, I've been thinking, without much luck, about youth violence. And then I read a post by Kevin Drum today, with this passage from Mark A.R. Kleiman's When Brute Force Fails:

Given the decrease in lead exposure among children since the 1980s and the estimated effects of lead on crime, reduced lead exposure could easily explain a very large proportion — certainly more than half — of the crime decrease of the 1994-2004 period. A careful statistical study relating local changes in lead exposure to local crime rates estimates the fraction of the crime decline due to lead reduction as greater than 90%.

A 2007 Washington Post story has more on the research, in the context of New York City's drop in crime from 1994-2001. Kleiman, for the record, thinks the conclusions drawn by the WaPo story are "dim-witted." (Brad Plumer has more on lead and Kleiman from around the same time, and points towards a lengthy 2000 article from The Nation, "The Secret History of Lead," for more reading.)

Megan Cottrell of One Story Up has more on lead poisoning in Chicago, and why it's a serious issue - in 1997, about one in four Chicago children suffered from lead poisoning.

The city has made progress since then. According to the Department of Public Health - via this valuable 2003 Lead Safe Chicago report, PDF - by 2002 the number was down to 10%, though the Lead Safe report suggests that the numbers may be higher than reported.

This still means that, as of 2002, Chicago still had the highest absolute number of lead-poisoned children in the nation - between 1999 and 2000, the report estimates, 12% of the nation's total. Completely unsurprisingly, the worst numbers were on the south and west sides ("several community areas on the south and west sides have elevated percentage rates more than twice the citywide average, some as high as 30%") and among low-income groups ("In Chicago, 50% of children with blood lead levels > 10 mcg/dL are enrolled in Medicaid").

As Cottrell notes, 87% of Chicago's housing was built before the 1978 ban on lead-based paint; the Lead Safe report estimates that 8% of all housing in Chicago at the time was hazardous, using data from the 2000 census and a 2002 study of lead-paint hazards. And it's not just housing stock that's a threat; the city's air pollution levels are among the nation's highest, and soil is also a danger.

Obviously lead poisoning, if it is a cause, isn't the only one, and lead abatement isn't the only solution. Kleiman himself, in 2007, wrote: "It’s quite plausible that the removal of lead from gasoline in the 1980s had more to do with the crime collapse of the late 1990s than any other single factor. Lots of things probably contributed: smarter policing, more cops, more prison cells, fewer unwanted children due to legal access to abortion, the tightening low-wage labor market that went along with the late-90s boom."

At the very least, when people talk about poverty as a root cause of violence, it's worth considering the possibility that environmental factors are an integral part of the problem of poverty as a whole.

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