Did Lead Paint Abatement Lower Crime in the 1990s?


It's a puzzle that has driven heated arguments among social scientists and policymakers. Why did crime rise precipitously in the decades following the 1960s, then fall dramatically in the 1990s?

Presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani often takes credit for reducing overall crime in that city by 57 percent during his tenure.  However, a recently released study indicates that the decrease in crime rates may have a subtler answer. In fact, the study argues that local and federal efforts to reduce lead poisoning, programs begun in the 1970s, deserve more credit for the decrease in crime rates.

What sets Nevin's analysis apart from other popular theories, such as Freakonomics, is that his theory is based on identical, decades-long associations between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.  In the study, economist Rick Nevin correlates children's exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives. In short, Nevin argues that the high level of lead used in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes in the post-World War II period poisoned toddlers and led to increased crime rates when the toddlers became adolescents. The toxicity of lead poisoning is no secret and among the many dangers of lead poisoning is increased aggression, violence, anti-social and delinquent behavior.   

Lead levels were drastically decreased in New York in the early 1970's through efforts to eliminate it from gasoline and reduction of lead paint and lead emissions from municipal incinerators. Therefore, as the toddlers that weren't poisoned by lead became adolescents in the 1990s, they didn't have the violent tendencies associated with lead poisoning, just as other communities saw lower crime lagging years after lead abatement efforts. 

Lead Abatement Programs: State programs to eliminate lead have been bolstered by the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988, which authorized the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to initiate childhood lead poisoning elimination programs. So far, the CDC has funded nearly 60 childhood lead poisoning prevention programs, including Arizona's targeted lead poisoning screening plan. Massachusetts' lead law is the oldest comprehensive state lead law and emphasizes primary prevention of childhood lead poisoning--including requiring property owners to permanently abate lead hazards in any housing unit inhabited by a child under six years old.

Still more action is needed. One sad example is New Orleans where, as the Institute for Southern Studies details, 25% of children living in predominately African-American urban neighborhoods suffered from lead poisoning. Yet no broad-based lead abatement program has been included in reconstruction efforts for the city.

Legally, lead paint manufacturers are fighting hard against being held liable for the damage their paint has caused. Just last year, three former lead paint makers were found guilty in a suit brought by the state of Rhode Island that claimed lead paint in 240,000 houses in the state created a public nuisance and poisoned thousands of children. The case is being appealed and damages have not yet been awarded but the guilty verdict in and of itself was a huge blow to the lead paint industry.  Still, the industry has also won appeals in New Jersey and Missouri, so the need for positive government action is clear, especially with the estimated costs of lead poisoning still estimated at over $43 billion.



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