Lead Poisoning And Crime

July 23, 2007

I’ve had several email exchanges with Rick Nevin, a key source for a Washington Post story, mentioned and linked below. The WaPo item suggested Rudy Giuliani might not be deserving of significant credit for crime reduction during his tenure as Mayor of NYC due to the relationship of lead poisoning and crime rates. I felt the Post piece not only distracted from potentially valuable science by throwing it into the political realm, it also failed to handle the material objectively. After all, if the analysis below impacts on one then city politician, certainly it impacts on many others, including a former President known for touting his administration’s record on crime, one whose wife is now seeking the Democrat nomination.

In the interest of objectivity and giving more light to potentially valuable science, I offered Rick the opportunity to write a guest blog post of about 700 words, sans the politics, and he agreed. After having looked at much material in this area over the last week, my personal position is that Giuliani’s approach to fighting crime in NYC is a good and productive one I very much support. And lead poisoning is a troubling problem we should continue to do something about, it’s impact on brain function and potential social problems as a result should not be dismissed, or seen only as political fodder. So here’s Rick’s piece:

I want to thank Dan Riehl for publicizing my research , and I especially want to express my sincere thanks for this opportunity to provide his readers with some additional information.

The Washington Post article  about my research was reporting on my new 2007 study of preschool lead exposure and international crime trends, as well as my 2000 study  of USA trends in lead exposure, IQ, and violent crime.  Science Direct charges for these studies (none of that money goes to authors), but my 2000 study summary  and my 2007 study summary  are available without charge.  My 2000 study was done as an ICF Consulting  employee, but I now work as an independent consultant, publishing under my affiliation as an advisor to the National Center for Healthy Housing .  I still do some unrelated part-time work for ICF, but my lead research over the last several years has been done on my own time and dime.

A 2006 Washingtonian Article  provides an excellent overview of the research linking preschool lead exposure with IQ, education outcomes, and impulsive behavior, woven together with the story of a specific child.  This article notes that I was an unlikely advocate for this cause when I began work on a cost-benefit analysis for a proposed regulation on lead paint hazards.  My background is in economics and finance, and I quickly realized this would be an expensive regulation, and doubted that the benefits could justify the costs.  I was mistaken.  My Economic Analysis of the HUD Rule shows substantial net benefits from lead paint hazard reduction, even without counting any benefit from crime reduction.

I also worked on the Federal Strategy to eliminate childhood lead poisoning, and I have published two studies (with Jacobs) Validating the Federal Strategy Forecast and showing how a “Windows of Opportunity” initiative could largely eliminate lead paint hazards and reduce home energy costs.  My earlier article on the Economics of Home Energy Efficiency summarizes findings from my 1998 Appraisal Journal Study (with Watson) and my 1999 Appraisal Journal Study  (with Bender and Gazan).

I would like for my research on lead exposure and crime to generate more interest in the remaining risk of lead paint hazards, and the opportunity to largely eliminate that risk via cost-effective window replacement, but I realize my research also has political implications.  One implication is that Giuliani might not deserve so much credit for the New York City crime decline, and another implication is that Bill Clinton might not deserve so much credit for the nationwide 1990s crime decline.  My research, however, does not mention Giuliani or Clinton, and I discussed the New York City crime decline in the context of challenging the theory that abortion legalization caused the USA crime decline.

A recent Brazil Magazine Article  provides another perspective on this issue, noting that the murder rate in Sao Paulo soared from the 1980s through 1999, then experienced a “remarkable turning point”, falling by more than 50% from 2000 through 2006.  The authors conclude: “The homicide decline in the state of São Paulo in the first decade of this century is similar to the decline in New York City in the 1990s. In both cases, the police adopted more effective methods.”  I’m sure these authors are unaware of an academic study of Lead in Latin America , which notes that the annual average air lead concentration in a high traffic density area in Sao Paulo fell by more than 60% from 1978 to 1983.  The maximum lead content of gasoline remained high in Brazil and most of Latin America through the mid-1980s, but the use of pure ethanol (lead-free) fuel surged in Brazil after the spike in oil prices in 1979, and Sao Paulo state accounts for over half of Brazil’s ethanol production.

- Rick Nevin

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  1. Lead paint had been around for thousands of years, and NYC had been painted with it since the beginning. If one wants to blame the high 70’s and 80’s crime rates on it, what is the explanation for the lower NYC crime rates in the 40’s and 50’s?
    What is the explanation for the persistent high crime rates in Washington D.C. now that the lead paint is gone?