Thursday, February 7, 2013

Criminal element - lead?

Lead affects us at far lower levels than we thought and there might be a crime link

Long ago on a hot Florida afternoon a new criminology faculty member sat down to lunch with Professor C. Ray Jeffery, ex-president of the American Society of Criminology and author of CPTED.

“CPTED is not just the environment where we live,” he lectured, “it’s also the bio-chemical environment within our bodies. It’s in the brain!” 

That new faculty member was me. To those who knew and respected Jeffery (also me), this was old turf. Yet criminologists ignored Jeffery’s ideas. Bio-chemical theories were invisible in crime theory. Why? They had once been popular.

In the 1800s phrenology measured head bumps to test for criminality. Strike one. Eugenics theories created compulsory sterilization programs well into the mid-20th Century? Strike two. The Nazi's nightmarish views on racial purity led to monsters like Joseph Mengele. Strike three. No wonder biology was ignored.

No longer! Today I read an article called America's Real Criminal Element: Lead. Author Kevin Drum shows how adding lead to gas corresponded with crime increases and how removing it in the 1980s also corresponded with the Great Crime Decline starting in 1990.


The article centers around Rick Nevin’s neurological research. From studies in 1999 to his 2007 paper about international crime trends and preschool lead exposure, Nevin shows the missing lead link over and over. He compares data from multiple countries. Same effect.

Then last August new research confirmed Nevin’s hypothesis with correlations between neighborhood lead levels and violence in places like New Orleans, San Diego and Chicago.

Los Angeles Police HQ. Gardens to help with cleanup
Scary stuff. Of course correlation doesn’t prove anything. But it suggests we’ve waited too long to start environmental soil clean-ups in neighborhoods, especially if crime is a result. Neurological studies do show that lead affects us at far lower levels than we thought and that childhood exposure at nearly any level can permanently reduce mental functioning.

Drum and Nevin tell us lead is everywhere. It might be out of the gas pumps, but decades ago it settled in the soil from vehicle emissions. It still gets tracked indoors on our shoes. Perhaps I should have listened less to the mainstream and more to Jeffery so long ago?

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. Good article. The implications are hard to comprehend, and the environmental cleanup needed quite daunting. Hard to say where we'd begin!

  2. Great question Tod.

    Here's one good starting place: I think it is time CPTED practitioners started incorporating more environment-friendly principles and reconsidering traditional 1st Generation CPTED in favor of 2nd Generation CPTED.

    For example this absurd idea of trimming every tree on every path and building in the service of the nebulous idea that natural surveillance actually "surveils". The latest issue of CPTED Perspective has a great article by Macarena Rau's on how visual fields only work with activated space. And space is activated with ample and well-designed greenery!

    If we don't beautify and activate spaces with those very trees and shrubs (sometimes sacrificing some surveillance), then it doesn't matter how much greenery we cut away. It is that same greenery that will start the process of tackling pollutants.


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