Pb and crime?

It seems like much of the interest in the environmental impact of energy systems these days is focused entirely on greenhouse gas emissions (or maybe that’s me being biased by my own research? :).  However, a recent piece in Mother Jones really highlights the importance of other air pollutant emissions, suggesting that the true impact of heavy metal pollution might be much much greater than commonly assumed:


Here’s the quick 10¢ summary:

  • use of leaded gasoline (which incidentally was developed by the same dude that invented CFCs) resulted in high levels of environmental lead (Pb) exposure in the US that peaked around 1970 and have been falling since
  • childhood lead exposure can result in a reduction in IQ and other neurological problems
  • environmental lead correlates surprisingly well with crime rates across a wide variety of scales, lending credit to the hypothesis that neurological damage from childhood lead exposure results in a strong predisposition to crime later in life
  • mitigation of residual environmental lead contamination likely has a highly favorable cost-benefit ratio once this secondary effect of crime reduction is considered

The idea that lead exposure makes us dumber and more violent has been floating around for a few years now, though lead emissions have been in decline for decades, so this is largely a remediation story.  However, it seems that mercury (Hg) pollution has broadly similar neurological effects, and emission rates are still increasing in many places across the globe (e.g., here, here, and here).  I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to be having a similar conversation in the context of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants in the future.  It’s not clear to me to what extent extent such secondary effects are included in mainstream energy system pollution mitigation cost-benefit assessments, I would guess not at all…

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One Response to Pb and crime?

  1. John says:

    Interesting aside- apparently one of the more significant remaining sources of lead pollution, with important implications for both human health and wildlife preservation, is hunters’ bullets:
    Unfortunately, apparently efforts to get people to transition to using bullets made from more environmentally metals just gets people riled up about gun control.

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