May 28, 2008
Lead Exposure Boosts Incidence Of Criminality?

The neurotoxin lead appears to have long term negative effects on behavior.

Childhood exposure to lead is associated with adult criminal behaviour, including violent crime, finds a new study in this week’s PLoS Medicine. Dr Kim Dietrich and colleagues (University of Cincinnati, USA) studied the association between exposure to lead in the uterus and during early childhood and criminal arrests in adulthood, in poor areas of Cincinnati.

Lead is known to be toxic to the nervous system. Childhood exposure has been identified as a potential risk factor for antisocial behaviour in adulthood. But this link has relied on indirect measurement of childhood lead exposure in adults or has measured childhood lead exposure directly but has not followed lead-exposed children into adulthood. The new study overcomes both of these limitations.

Between 1979 and 1984, the researchers recruited pregnant women living in poor areas of Cincinnati, which had a high concentration of older lead-contaminated housing. Out of the 376 newborns recruited into the study, 250 were included in the final analysis. Blood lead levels were measured during pregnancy and then regularly until the children were six and a half years old, as an indication of their lead exposure. This exposure was then correlated with local criminal justice records on how many times each of the 250 offspring had been arrested between becoming 18 years old and the end of October 2005.

The researchers found that increased blood lead levels before birth and during early childhood were associated with higher rates of arrest for any reason and for violent crimes. For example, for every 5ug/dl increase in blood lead levels at six years of age, the risk of being arrested for a violent crime as a young adult increased by almost 50% (the “relative risk” was 1.48).

Here is the full research paper.

Testing 5 year olds or maybe 3 year olds for blood lead levels followed by measures to lower lead levels could pay rich dividends in lower crime rates. Note that a lot of evidence points toward the idea that vitamin B1 (thiamin) seems to increase excretion of lead. A few other nutrients might do so as well.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 May 28 07:11 PM  Brain Development

Fat Man said at May 28, 2008 7:27 PM:

It is not the lead. It is the poverty and inattentive parenting.

Doctors with computers.

Allan said at May 28, 2008 7:50 PM:

Maybe inattentive parenting but being poor is not a crime. There are a lot of poor people who don't commit crimes.

As for the inattentive parenting, maybe if the courts weren't so biased against fathers then the kids would get more attention.

Wolf-Dog said at May 28, 2008 8:12 PM:

"Note that a lot of evidence points toward the idea that vitamin B1 (thiamin) seems to increase excretion of lead. A few other nutrients might do so as well."

True, but if I understood some of the articles about this subject, most of the accumulated lead is stored in the bones. And as we age, the bones get depleted, and a lot of stored lead goes back into the blood stream, causing secondary lead damage again at a later age, even if there is no more external absorption of lead.

Hence my question is this: Although it is true that Vitamin B1 and other nutrients are helpful for excreting the lead, would these nutrients also cause a big burst of lead out of the bones? For instance, in the case of mercury detoxification, it is important to be very careful, and unless this is done very professionally by doctors who are experts, when the mercury that was stored in the interior of cells gets stimulated by chemicals to get out of these cells, it often "rains back" onto the cells, causing even more damage. For this reason, I believe that it is important to detect the lead accumulation professionally (there are X-ray machines in New York and Los Angeles to detect accumulated lead in the body), and then to speak to an expert about the detoxification procedure.

But if our fate is sealed by the chemicals we are exposed to, then is there any free will in the world?

kurt9 said at May 28, 2008 8:59 PM:

Lead causes violent behavior and Mercury causes autism. Using supplements and other compounds to remove heavy metals from the body is called chelation. Alpha-lipoic acid is used to chelate mercury from the body.

LarryO said at May 28, 2008 9:05 PM:

Blood lead levels have been decreasing dramatically over the last 20 years. I wonder if this playing a small part in the decrease in crime we have seen in the last 15 years? Check out these charts of blood lead levels among Blacks/Hispanics/Whites over the last 20 years. The gap between races has narrowed considerably.

Jerry Martinson said at May 28, 2008 11:43 PM:

This is a great paper and great research that furthers my concern that we haven't been doing enough to limit lead poisoning in children in the US. I'm happy that it is in PLoS so that we can look at it. Unfortunately, Europe's RoHS standards put them ahead of the US on this front. Having small children, I would feel a lot better if products in the US had to comply with RoHS and similar restrictions. Most people have heard about the problems with lead paint. However, most people would be shocked to learn that their minibinds, jewelry, electronics cordsets, pliable plastics, and paints applied to products contain and shed lead during normal usage. With lead-based products being so pervasive in so many products in the US, there are frequent cases where products intended for children that are supposed to be lead free end up getting inadvertently made out of lead because of careless mistakes or ignorance in the materials sourcing process. It would make a lot more sense to me if in the US we could have a system similar to Europoe's RoHS, where lead usage is restricted to a handful of uses where either no practical substitute could be found or where the full life cycle of the product is unlikely to generate much risk of human exposure (such as car batteries).

It would be great if a lot of our crime and social problems could be solved by simply removing lead from places where there are pathways to human exposure. However, I'm deeply suspicious that the work described in this paper, may still suffer from confounding effects that could quite seriously overestimate the effect of lead on crime:

Suppose you had two different families that are growing up in similar houses that have lead paint, etc... Despite being in the same physical environment, different parenting styles could explain a lot of the lead exposure. Lead exposure is highest during the toddler years when kids start exploring and sticking things in their mouths. More attentive parents would likely dust and clean more as well as supervise their exploring children more. This would greatly reduce the amount of lead contaminated dust and paint chips generated from rubbing surfaces that are a major source of ingestion. It may be the fact that one has had more attentive parents (both heredity and parental social environment), not one's lead exposure, that make one less likely to commit crime.

wcw said at May 29, 2008 1:11 AM:

Fat Man, go fuck yourself. Or rather, go read the literature. Lead exposure sucks. Lead abatement is among the stronger arguments for government I know. You and yours, who dismiss actual results that could help people.. well, like GWB you're better than Stalin, Mao and Hitler. Congrats!

Larry, I was pretty sure lead was the main cause of the spurious Levitt abortion result. It's already happened. More, please.

Jerry, the science is very, very strong. Lead sucks, period. This is not up for debate. Sure, there are confounding effects, but as I like to say, given any opportunity: lead abatement, lead abatement, lead abatement.

Lead abatement.

Doing it right -- not slapdash, but *right* -- would be a pimple on the ass of the Iraq war cost. That it hasn't happened, as I also like to say, is among the stronger curses I can level at either political party. (D), (R), "(I)" (and we all know who you really vote for, you cowards): we're all lackwits. If we weren't, lead would have been gone ~1920.

Fat Man said at May 29, 2008 6:44 AM:

wcw: Nice. You talk to your mother like that?

epicuria said at May 29, 2008 7:08 PM:

Correlation is not cause. Was there no control group of non inner city youth outside of Cincinnati whose lead levels were monitored?

Jerry Martinson said at May 30, 2008 12:43 AM:


I agree that lead abatement is underfunded relative to the likely cost of lead exposure. And I agree that the evidence is indisputable that modest levels of lead exposure is very, very bad. I also agree that there is probably no threshold effect. But the costs of true abatement are quite high.

Unfortunately, the only way to truly remove nearly all potential for significant lead exposure is to completely raze all dwellings built before 1978 - to be absolutely sure you'll probably want to scrape the topsoil too incase someone plants a garden. Even if you paint over it, as houses settle, doors will stick and make the dust again. You could replace your doors, but I don't see how you'll ever really get it all. There will always be a significant hidden reservoir of lead somewhere in an old house. When my first kid was born I thought I got it all. I followed all the EPA and other abatement advice until later when I discovered that the tracks holding up the closet doors had lots of very large lead paint drips in them that would get pulverized as the door would open and close. The dust would go right onto his clothes. I only noticed when I saw the specs all over his clothes.

Even if you do raze the dwelling, you should also throw out _everything_ you own that's not recently "CE" marked. Your kids could chew on the power cord. Or lick your miniblinds. Or swallow decorative beads that your wife may have had a hobby making jewelery with.


George said at June 3, 2008 8:03 PM:

post hoc ergo propter hoc

composiet aanrechtblad said at November 23, 2015 11:50 PM:

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haftstreifen said at March 25, 2016 3:10 PM:

PCs themselves, and programming yet to be produced, will upset the way we learn.

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