Does Lead Paint Produce More Crime Too?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


One obvious question about my story on the link between lead poisoning and violent crime is why I focus so heavily on gasoline lead. What about lead paint in old housing stock? Isn’t that just as important?

The answer is simple. My focus was on the rise and fall of crime in the era after World War II, and lead paint didn’t play a big role in that. During that era, exposure to lead from paint was fairly stable, possibly declining a bit over time as lead paint was phased out, and it probably contributed to a generally elevated level of crime during the entire period. But because it was fairly stable, it didn’t contribute to either a dramatic rise or fall in crime.

But what about earlier? Use of lead paint did rise substantially in the early 20th century, so why not look at that? Again, the answer is simple: we don’t have reliable crime statistics going back that far, so it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the effect of lead paint on crime.

But here’s one of those interesting tidbits I mentioned yesterday that I didn’t have room for in the main article. It turns out that there’s one crime we do have good long-term data for: murder. Murder has always been pretty easy to define and it’s always been fairly reliably reported. It’s only one data point, but does it fit the lead hypothesis?

Here’s what we’d expect. Lead paint use rose in the early 20th century, peaking in the teens and then dropping. Then, in the late 40s, gasoline lead started to rise, peaking in the 70s and then dropping. Since lead primarily affects small children, you’d expect that kids exposed to lead paint would grow up and become more violent in the 30s, then taper off, and then become more violent again in the 60s. It should be a double-humped curve.

And guess what? That’s exactly what we see in the data:

As usual, I want to caution everyone about trying to infer too much from this. Lead isn’t the only cause of crime, and getting rid of it won’t necessarily return us to the crime rates of a century ago. Crime is driven by culture, by guns, by poverty, by race, by drug use, by demographics, by policing tactics, by incarceration, and more. Nevertheless, the close match between two unusual curves like this is striking. We don’t have much data going back before World War II, but what data we do have offers yet more confirmation of the link between lead and crime.

Needless to say, this also confirms the importance of cleaning up lead paint as well as lead-impregnated soil. Lead paint isn’t a big part of the postwar crime wave story, but lead is lead, and higher levels produce more crime, more learning disabilities, lower IQs, and lower lifetime earnings. Wherever it is, we need to clean it up.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate