Lead poisoning, gasoline lobbies and crime

by David Zetland (originally published at Aguanomics)

Lead poisoning, gasoline lobbies and crime

Most of you have probably heard how the residents of Flint, Michigan were exposed to unhealthy levels of lead in their water (actually, any level is considered unhealthy) due to political and managerial incompetence.*
Then I read this article on the “lead-poisoned generations of New Orleans,” which pointed out two things. First, there’s a very heavy correlation between lead poisoning and poverty, i.e., the poor are exposed to more lead in their air, water and earth than the rich due to where they live, the jobs they work, their lack of access to public health clinics, and their relative lack of political power.

That article linked to another, fascinating one about Clair Patterson, an eccentric genius who fought a (mostly) lone war against the gasoline industry from after WWII until lead’s poisonous effects of people were pulled back by changes in US air quality regulations (e.g., removing lead from gasoline) that began in the 1970s but were prevented by industry lobbying from reaching their end point until 1995. (In the meanwhile, another generation of children inhaled lead at levels linked to permanent brain damage — and lower IQs.**) That long article is worth reading for its industry villains, the academic who took a big salary to work for industry, and the generation of environmental scientists spawned by Patterson’s work.

There are two lessons from these stories. The first is that we’ve known about lead’s negative impacts for a long time, as this excerpt from the Patterson article demonstrates:

The Romans mined 18 million tons of lead between 200 BCE and 500 CE, much of it for pipes. All this time, they were aware of lead’s dangers. The Roman architect Vitruvius begged officials to use terra-cotta instead. “Water,” he plead, should “on no account be conducted in leaden pipes if we are desirous that it should be wholesome.”

The second is that industry will fight regulations to limit their use of lead, as alternative substances cost more (not a lot more, just more). That fighting is not just worrying from a public health and development perspective, but also from the perspective of those children who are permanently damaged by lead in their blood and soft tissue.
Even people who haven’t read Freakonomics have probably heard of Steve Levitt’s claimed correlation between the right to abortion and violence, i.e., that legalized abortion post-Roe v Wade meant that fewer unwanted children — and thus fewer would-be criminals — were born after 1973. Although I have always been skeptical of this claim, I was pleased (in a sad way) to find a much better correlate — and perhaps causal driver — of violence and the fall in violence: lead in the air (see figure).

This article goes through the lead-crime hypothesis, and explains why (1) crime has dropped radically in the US since the mid 1990s (programs to reduce lead began in the 1970s and it takes 23 years for kids with intelligence and behavior problems caused by lead to “hit the statistics”) and (2) why crime has not dropped by as much as it could: ongoing exposure to lead in polluted soil and water. Who’s most exposed? The poor people put in public housing, as also discussed in the first article above.

Most European countries banned lead from industrial products in the 1940s. The US lagged by 40 years due to industry lobbying (and political corruption and/or naiveté). That’s two generations of brain damage, criminal activity, and poor health — two generations sacrificed to add a few bucks to industry profits.

Seriously, Flint water managers probably saved $10,000 in the course of inflicting $1 billion in harm to citizens, children, trust and the city’s water system. That’s a benefit:cost ratio of 1:100,000 against, but the benefit was to the city’s budget and the cost fell on citizens and taxpayers “bailed in” by politicians eager to do something after it’s too late.

(Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s incompetence and ideology has led to further delays in an EPA rule on lead in drinking water.)

Bottom Line: Some of our biggest social problems are the result of government failure (industry lobbying plus political corruption), not the individuals who find themselves living with less brain development due to conditions beyond their control. Don’t be naive when a lobbyist says “can’t be done” — look and see what others do around the world, and then see what has be done.

* Untrained managers saved $100/day on chemicals that would have neutralized the corrosive impact of Flint River water, thus preventing the removal of deposited minerals that were separating flowing water from the lead in pipes. In my original blog post on this massive failure, I suggested that the people of Flint relocate — by entire neighborhoods — to Detroit. I still think that’s better than the $millions that will be spent on a city with a dim future…
** I remember the phase-out of lead, as I had an old car that needed “supplements” to run with unleaded gas. I also wonder how much lead damage I sustained as a kid growing up in the 70s.