Home Energy and Environment A New Surprise Benefit of Cutting Lead Pollution

A New Surprise Benefit of Cutting Lead Pollution


Contains LeadStudies have shown a strong connection between the phase-out of lead in gasoline starting in the mid-1970s and a plunge in violent crime in the following decades. As Kevin Drum reports at Mother Jones, a new study is connecting lower levels of childhood lead exposure to a later drop in the teen pregnancy rate:

For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn’t just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn’t related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn’t suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn’t suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down.

Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.

Today, we’re debating whether to cut the toxic heavy metal and carbon pollution from coal by shutting down the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants. But the benefits aren’t hidden – we know coal kills thousands of people every year and causes thousands more asthma attacks in children.

Electricity rates and jobs are obviously important, but why do reporters talk almost exclusively about those, and hardly at all about these very real impacts on our lives? When did human health become a sidebar story?

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    The end of the story about the lead/pregnancy story contains what was my first reaction to this information: “There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them.” I really can’t see how the logical jump was made from lower lead in the environment and a lower teen pregnancy rate, even as one of the important causes of the drop. So many other factors could be affecting that specific sociological finding.

    It should be obvious to people that we never should have been dumping a known neurotoxic substance into our environment. I m sure that there are many other chemicals being dumped into the environment that also have deleterious effects we have never studied. For starters, someone should try to learn why male fish in tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay are often showing female attributes and becoming sterile. Something is terribly wrong there.

  • wolfrunner

    Steven Levitt in FREAKANOMICS reported on his analysis of factors leading to reduced crime in the 1990s.  His work suggested that the biggest credit goes to Norma McCovey of Dallas, TX.  Known as “Jane Roe” in the landmark Roe v. Wade case, McCovey’s case made abortion safe, legal, affordable and accessible for poor women, reducing unwanted pregnancies, and thereby increasing the ability of social resources to help troubled kids.  

    Other factors also contributed, including reduction of environmental toxins (including lead in paint and in fuels).