Getting the lead out

It’s (long past) time to spend the money to eliminate the remaining sources of environmental lead.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “Getting the lead out”

  1. Perhaps it would sell better if sold as an anti-drug crusade? “If vodka were seeping into our children’s bodies, we’d take every action to stop it. Lead is worse.”

  2. The consequences are enormously dynamic, but another is clearly trouble in school. And until we get the lead out, this is another reason for means-tested education spending to compensate for the disadvantaged populations. In my own life, our daughters attend an exclusive charter school, where yearly fundraisers net <$100k. This is used to fortify arts, etc. The poorer neighborhoods in older, dilapidated housing with more lead exposure raise no money, get no arts, etc., can't read as well to begin with. I wonder how the parents would take it if I suggested we raise money instead for poor neighborhood schools?

  3. As I understand it, lead poisoning is mostly a problem in poor African American and Hispanic neighborhoods and thus it isn’t a problem in this country.

  4. Mark:

    How well-established is it that decreasing lead in paint, petroleum, piping, etc., contributed to a decrease in crime? I know that one researcher in Rhode Island, I believe, showed a robust correlation. But is it considered by most public policy crime-control experts to be the main cause of the drop in crime since the early to-mid-1990s? Moreover, has this type of research linking crime and lead been found in other countries in OECD? I know that violent murders has risen and fallen in similar rates across the OECD (though overal levels differ), making me wonder if all of these countries reduced lead at the same time.

    My impression is that you, along with other criminologist and crime-control experts, are one of several factions with theories on what reduced violent crime recently in US, with your faction believeing that decreasing lead was cause. There is also a faction that believes legalized abortion reduced crime, or that imprisonment and better crime-control techniques reduced crime.

    I am sympathetic to your faction’s theory and desire to remove more lead from the enviornment as a way to reduce crime. But sometimes you give the impression that your camp is an overwhelming consensus, when in fact there are a number of different factions differing on what decreased crime in the US recently and what will in the future.

    You are entitled to your opinion and theories, but I have doubts that your theory speaks for the 70-80% of social scientists who have looked into the topic.


    1. I’m not aware of this being a factional issue, except that some sociologically-oriented criminologists regard the study of biological factors as taboo. Everyone agrees the reduction in crime was multi-causal. Some give more weight than others to lead. The combination of the biology and the statistics (which more than one study has documented) seems to me to make it unreasonable not to attribute a substantial share of the causation to lead.

      1. Thanks for the clarificaiton on this Mark…

        Has the abortion-reducing crime been totally discounted, or is it still one of the causes in the running?

        I know the abortion-reducing crime factor caused a big hullabaloo, for obvious reasons, while the lead-reduction cause has not gotten much publicity, alas…:/


        1. Frank, there’s a lot of evidence on developmental delays in children exposed to lead. One serious effect is poor performance in school, thus putting kids at risk for negative behavioral responses. Etc. Etc.

  5. A quick Google search shows that the last primary lead smelter (vs recycled lead, I suppose) in the US is going to close down soon.

    I guess this is good news, but it looks like its going to do an economic number on the town it’s in, and I can’t get too excited about the prospect of moving the lead poisoning to China or Mexico which seems like what’s going to happen.

  6. Civil aviation is the overlooked source, av gas still has lead. What a perfect dispersal system to spread lead into the food chain. Get planes onto unleaded first.

  7. If Rick Nevin is right about even half of what he says about the effects of lead exposure, then removing lead from the environment would have a better cost-benefit ratio than just about any other public policy. I found his arguments to be well-reasoned and convincing, though I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has evidence to the contrary. As far as I can tell, though, there is no dispute among scientists that lead exposure in childhood makes people stupider and more violent: the only dispute is how serious the effect is, and at what levels it kicks in.

    Another interesting, tangentially related fact: El Paso has, for decades, had a lower crime rate and a higher surveyed level of personal happiness than the sociological data would seem to warrant. Why? Probably because there is a high level of lithium in the water supply. Why hasn’t this been more extensively studied? Should we be spiking city water supplies with lithium as we do now with fluoride?

    And that’s not even getting into the myriad ways that cat-borne Toxoplasmosis messes with our minds

    Things like this are why I don’t believe in “personal responsibility”. That notion is based on obsolete 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy (if we were less charitable we could call it theology, or even superstition).

    1. “Things like this are why I don’t believe in “personal responsibility”. That notion is based on obsolete 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy (if we were less charitable we could call it theology, or even superstition).”
      This is well said. It seems the deeper you dig, the more causality you find, either from environmental, biological, societal, economic, etc. sources. In the end “personal responsibility”, as you describe it, slips through the fingers like grains of sand. The moral implications are indeed as dire as many would first assume, but not in the way many think. Utilitarianism actually solves issues of fatalism or personal accountability quite well. But the more serious implications are the indictment of current superstitions (as you rightly term them) regarding personal responsibility. A true reckoning of human societal causality gives lie to traditional notions of ownership, achievement, and the very concept of success and failure as self-determined phenomenon. “You didn’t build that” becomes much more significant and damning, applying not only to even the greatest “self-made man” successes, but so too to the greatest criminal and behavioral failures. This is a scientific, “ecological” view of human society, rather than one based on superstition, myth and an ignorance of “common sense”.

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