Government Gets the Lead Out, Crime Plummets

No, this is not about lead-footed Starsky and Hutch-style car chases by law enforcement.

Rather, it’s about damned convincing evidence that unleaded gasoline (introduced in the U.S. in the 70s) is largely responsible for the huge decline in crime rates since the early 90s. (Update: it continues.) Even more convincing than (but not precluding) Levitt’s Roe v Wade hypothesis.

Short story: we spent fifty years quite literally poisoning the minds of our children — especially inner-city and low-income children. The damage is permanent.

Researcher Rick Nevin is getting some well-deserved press (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) for his cross-country analyses of lead exposure and crime. (Worth noting: he first published this research in 1999.)

Here’s a picture; you can eyeball the correlations yourself. The researchers, naturally, analyze the correlations more systematically.

Here’s more, consumption of lead in gasoline in the USA, in thousands of metric tons (click for source):

See also the work of Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, who claims that half the decline in crime resulted from less lead in the environment (hence in little kids’ heads).

Robert Waldmann (hat tip!) at Angry Bear is looking at the latest data from the UK, where they went unleaded thirteen years later, so the effects should be showing up now. They seem to be:

the total number of violent crimes was basically identical in 2004/5 2005/6 and 2006/7 then declined about 17% by 2009/10. The predicted peak of 2007 corresponds about as precisely to the data as is conceivable.

From the WaPo article:

Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, for example, were built over the Dan Ryan Expressway, with 150,000 cars going by each day. Eighteen years after the project opened in 1962, one study found that its residents were 22 times more likely to be murderers than people living elsewhere in Chicago.

Nevin’s finding implies a double tragedy for America’s inner cities: Thousands of children in these neighborhoods were poisoned by lead in the first three quarters of the last century. Large numbers of them then became the targets, in the last quarter, of Giuliani-style law enforcement policies.

We’re seeing it in spades: the history of tetraethyl lead (read it and weep) is a tragic textbook case of market/profit interests eviscerating the commons and making us all (including the rich) far worse off, in the name of “the invisible hand” making us all better off.

That ebil gubmint man with his heavy-handed regulations impinging on honest businesspeople (who are just trying to make a buck, for everyone’s benefit) sure did have a pernicious effect, huh?




6 responses to “Government Gets the Lead Out, Crime Plummets”

  1. Mike Kimel Avatar


    Dontcha know, there are no externalities.

  2. Rick Nevin Avatar

    Updates for my graphs of international crime and lead exposure trends are available at – click on The Answer is Lead Poisoning. Bloggers and other media are welcome to reproduce any graphs from this research update/overview as long as you cite as the source.

  3. Dave Raithel Avatar

    @Mike Kimel

    Suppose we had a market that “internalized” all market externalities. Would that be the sufficient condition for a “just” society? (Does one’s answer suppose one’s definition of “just”?)

  4. […] An event in physics — a ball being bit by a bat and landing in center field  – has very few causes, so it’s pretty easy to deduce and explain those causes. Chemistry is significantly more complex, but still largely likewise. Update: unleaded gasoline? […]

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