Getting the (remaining) lead out

Shorter Kevin Drum:

1. Lead is remarkably nasty stuff. In minuscule quantities (measured in the single digits of micrograms per decliter of blood) it damages both IQ and the capacity for self-command.

2. The rise of lead exposure from gasoline, and its subsequent decline, accounts for a large share of the crime boom of 1960-90 and the crime decline that started in 1994.

3. Children are still being exposed to lead from two major sources: residual lead in soil, and lead paint in homes, especially window-frames.

4. Substantially eliminating those sources of exposure would require a one-time expenditure of about $400 billion. (That sounds like a lot of money, until you look at Treasury bond rates and translate it to $12 billion a year.)

5. The return on that investment would be at least in the high tens of billions of dollars per year.

Kevin’s piece, the cover story in the current Mother Jones, is a model of science/policy journalism. He carefully chases down both the biology and the social science supporting the claims about the effects of lead, identifies the main remaining sources, and documents the abatement processes, with cost estimates. (The quantification of benefits is mostly hand-waving; neither the outcome predictions nor the valuations are convincing. But it’s more than adequate to show that the benefit-cost analysis would come out hugely positive.)

It remains to be seen whether a crime-control and educational initiative that doesn’t fit the intellectual categories or feed the budgets of the criminal-justice and educational systems can obtain any political purchase. The answer so far seems to be no.

Getting the lead out

Kevin Drum makes a strong case for spending the money to remove the remaining sources of environmental lead: old lead paint and residential water pipes. Eliminating lead paint an lead pipes each would have costs in the tens-of-billions range. In each case that would mean either (1) requiring private parties to spend substantial amounts of money or (2) spending substantial amounts of public money to fix up private property, somewhat unfairly to those who prudently spent their own money to fix it.  But neither problem could possibly justify allowing the ongoing damage from lead exposure; those are one-time expenditures, and the flow of damage from lead is a continuing cost.

One source Kevin doesn’t mention is smelters, which used to be a major source. I’m not current enough to know whether most of the smelter business has moved abroad, but I’m sure there are still some domestic smelters, and they’re inevitably bad news on the lead front.

As Kevin notes, one consequence of lead exposure is higher crime: lead reduces IQ and also specifically attacks some of the brain functions that support self-control. But consider what a horse-laugh a politician would get if he listed de-leading among his crime-control proposals.