Lead and Criminal Behavior: Recommended Reading

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead (New research finds Pb is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing.) by Kevin Drum

Reviewed by Miki Barnes
January 17, 2013

Kevin Drum's thought provoking report, America's Real Criminal Element[1], on the link between criminality and lead, appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Mother Jones. In this article, the author explores the correlation between lead pollution and the crime rate in America. He also delves into the connection between lead emissions, lower IQs, and ADHD.

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that can have significant negative and possibly irreversible impacts at very low levels. Emerging research cited by Drum indicates that exposure to this toxin during childhood can impair development in the prefrontal cortex , "...a part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as what psychologists call 'executive functions': emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility."[2] It also impairs communication channels within the brain. In addition, a growing body of medical literature has found a link between "even miniscule blood lead levels with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder...Even at concentrations well below those usually considered safe - levels still common today - lead increases the odds of kids developing ADHD."[3]

In this article Drum refers to the work of Rick Nevin, a researcher with the National Center for Healthy Housing who, over the course of investigating lead, found a strong correlation between early exposure to leaded automotive fuel in childhood and an increase in criminal behavior, juvenile delinquency, lower IQ rates, hyperactivity, behavior problems and learning impairments later in life. "Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted."[4] Nevin found that fluctuations in the crime rate followed this same general pattern with a roughly 23 year lag time between preschool exposure and criminal behavior as the affected population grew into adulthood. "Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s."[5] The connection between lead emissions and criminality was evidenced not only in the U.S. but in other countries, as well, including Australia, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and West Germany.

Drum also discussed the work of other researches who confirmed, supported, and expanded upon Nevin's findings. According to Drum, "We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century."[6]

Unfortunately, once released into the environment lead continues to pollute the soil and air for years to come. Though clean-up and prevention come at a significant cost, there are substantial savings in the long run. As Drum points out, "We can either get rid of the remaining lead, or we can wait 20 years and then lock up all the kids who have turned into criminals."[7]

Implications of Drum's Research on Lead Emissions and Regional Aviation Activity in Oregon

Reviewed by Miki Barnes
January 17, 2013

Lead and Aviation

Aviation activity is currently responsible for nearly 60 percent of lead emissions in this country. Piston engine aircraft frequently used for recreational flying and flight training still rely on leaded fuel. There are over 20,000 airports in the U.S. Fifty eight of these facilities, including Oregon's Hillsboro Airport (HIO), emit more than one half ton of lead into the environment each year. In fact, HIO now holds the dubious distinction of ranking in the top one percent, 21st in the nation, of airports in lead emissions. The vast majority of the more than 200,000 annual take-offs and landings at HIO are training flights, many of which circle repetitively over nearby residential communities, schools, day care centers, and parks at altitudes below 2,000 feet. Additional practice flights train over prime farmland, waterways, and surrounding communities. Port of Portland estimates indicate that HIO alone is responsible for emitting 0.7 tons of lead per year.

Other airports throughout the greater metropolitan area also contribute to the problem including, but not limited to, Scappoose, Stark's Twin Oaks, McMinnville, Aurora, Troutdale, Mulino and Chehalem Airpark. See http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/articles/OAW-LeadCloudOverOregon.php for additional information on Oregon airports and lead emissions. Despite mounting evidence attesting to the dangerous health and environmental impacts of lead, no federal, state, or local government agency is doing anything whatsoever to measure community blood lead levels or to actually monitor lead emissions in the air, water and soil in the vicinity of Oregon's airports.


Governor Kitzhaber recently voiced his intent to invest more money into schools by diverting funds from the prison system. Boosting education spending and decreasing incarceration rates are certainly worthy goals. Both outcomes could be more readily achieved by placing an immediate ban on flight training and other aviation activity that relies on leaded fuel. As illustrated in Drum's article, a reduction in lead emissions can greatly reduce incarceration rates as well as the need for future prison expansions. In all likelihood the increased IQ levels combined with a reduction in ADHD resulting from less lead in the environment will enhance student performance and improve graduation rates. Promoting the current status quo by failing to address this issue is criminal.


[1] Drum, Kevin. Criminal Element: Lead. The Hidden Villain Behind Rampant Crime, Lower IQ's, Even Rising ADHD? Mother Jones. (January/February 2013). http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline

[2] Ibid. pg. 33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. pg. 31.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. pg. 32.

[7] Ibid. pg. 62.

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