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Tuesday, October 15, 2013


The violent crime rate in America is dropping, a fact that many Americans may not be aware of.  The news media, especially local news broadcasts, often thrive on keeping viewers watching by scaring them, so violent crime stories tend to dominate their reporting. This is especially true whenever there's a horrible mass shooting;  while its natural for the media to cover such shocking stories, they unfortunately give the public an overblown view of how common violent crime is.  But, whether the public knows it or not, overall, violent crime rates have been dropping slowly but surely since the mid 1990's in the US.  Now, I'm not saying that violent crime is no longer a problem in this country (it is), or that America's violent crime rates aren't  higher than that of other first world nations (they are), but a decline is a decline.  Last year, for example, New York City had its lowest homicide rate since the early 1960's.
Obviously, this is good news. But what happened in the 90's to cause this drop?  And why didn't the economic collapse of 2008, which caused an increase in poverty and hard times for people, not result in an increase in crime, as one might expect?  There are a number of theories: politicians, especially conservative politicians, tend to play on people's fears to win their votes.  In the 90's, with the cold war over and the war on terror yet to begin, they turned to crime; in 1993 the horrific kidnapping and killing of a twelve year old girl named Polly Klaas in California led to the passage of the "Three strikes and your out" law, which mandated that criminals convicted of three felonies had to put away for life.  The passage of the law lead to more tough on crime laws on the local and federal level.  Before long the country's prison population began to swell, and that, along with an increase in the number of patrol officers on the street, inevitably has played a factor.  Others point to the fact that the illegal crack cocaine market began bottoming out in the 1990's, or that the general overall aging of the American population is the cause.  These theories all have merit, but the one that intrigues me the most is one that does not seem so obvious: lead reduction.
In the 1920's, lead was added to gasoline to smooth the fuel out and reduce knock and ping noises from car engines.  It was also used in paint to make it dry more quickly and seal more tightly.  While oil and lead companies deny that they were aware of the dangers of their products, those dangers were exposed in 1965 when Dr. Clair Patterson, a former member of the Manhattan Project, defied big oil companies and published findings showing the definite effects of exposure to lead fumes.  While at first controversial, his findings are now clearly seen as fact, and in 1973 the Environmental Protection Agency  began phasing lead out of gas, removing it entirely by 1986.  It was taken out of paint by 1978.  While there are still a few children today that sadly may be exposed, for the most part lead poisoning is a thing of the past.
The effects of lead fumes can be devastating,  especially on young children and the unborn fetuses of pregnant women; they range from reduced IQ to symptoms of hyperactivity and lowered impulse control.  It's that last effect that gives credit to the theory that getting the lead out has reduced our violent crime rate; it's no surprise that having normal impulse control is necessary, especially in young people, to avoid violent criminal behavior.  So in the 1990's when children born after the removal of lead began to reach the age in which they might commit criminal acts, they were less likely to do so.  It's also interesting to note that part of the reason that the violent crime rate in cities used to be much higher than in suburban areas had to do partly with a higher concentration of cars and lead fumes in narrow crowded city streets leading to higher lead exposure.

Also of interest is the fact that, along with the violent crime rate, the rate of teen pregnancy has also fallen in this country (and, like violent crime reduction, the media has underreported this good news).  This ties in nicely with the lead theory, because that lack of impulse control that exposure to lead fumes can cause also probably lead to teens engaging in unprotected sex.  So the drop in both violent crime and teen pregnancy is probably no coincidence.

So why hasn't the removal of lead gotten more attention from the media?  It's no surprise that the conservative media has ignored it; not only does it run counter to the idea that the best way to fight crime is increased prison sentences,  it's also a victory for the dreaded EPA.  Still, you would think that this story would have been picked up more, but it really hasn't.  Perhaps because it's a story that draws out mixed emotions: on the one hand, it's great to see violent crime reduced, on the other hand, it's hard not to get depressed when you consider thousands, perhaps even millions of children for decades being poisoned by the very air they breathed, consigned to lead lives of reduced intellect and criminal behavior through no fault of their own.  While we all like to think that people should be held responsible for their own personal behavior, given the effects of lead poisoning on children, one has to ask, how many criminals never really had a chance in life?  Once again, the entire concept of free will must be called into question.

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