Exposure to lead in early childhood may be one of the reasons for the wave of violent crime in the 20th century. It also may explain why most criminals come from urban areas.

Joan Lowy writes that economist Rick Nevin discovered that the post World War II use of leaded gasoline, which peaked in the 1970s, meant that nearly 80% of children had lead levels in their blood that exceeded today’s safety threshold. The problem was the worst for inner city children who were not only breathing auto exhaust, but also living in older housing contaminated with lead paint.

Juvenile crime began to rise in the 1950s at about the time the first generation of children exposed to leaded gasoline reached their teens. All kinds of violent crime increased, including murder, rape and assault. Violent crime unexpectedly began to decline in the 1990s, at the same time the children who were not exposed to leaded gasoline reached their teens. Nevin found similar trends in the U.K., Australia, France, New Zealand.

Criminologists can’t figure out why violent crime rose steadily for decades and then began an abrupt decline in the 1990s. There are theories about economic prosperity, more jail time, changing demographics and the crack cocaine epidemic, but none fully explain this trend.

Lowry writes, “Researchers at the Children’s Environmental Health Center in Cincinnati, who have been following 195 children born between 1979 and 1985, found that the children who had higher blood lead levels at a young age, or whose mothers had higher blood lead levels when they were pregnant, were more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, commit delinquent acts or be incarcerated?The most frequent complaint today from study participants, who are now in their early 20s, is that they have trouble holding down a job because they find it so difficult to concentrate at work.”

In a study by law professor Deborah Denno, she found that lead poisoning was the best predictor of delinquent and violent behavior and believes that since most criminal behavior has environmental origins, it can be eliminated.

Ruth Ann Norton, of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, says, “It is something you look at and it just blows your socks off.”

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